Horror Movie Review: Spectral (2016)

American Special Forces have come under attack from invisible, brutal enemies code named Spectrals, while fighting in a war torn, old version of Moldova. The locals believe the spectral to be the ghosts of war while the army believes them to just be soldiers wearing advanced active camouflage. DARPA send in one of their most brilliant scientists to figure out the truth. What are they and can they be stopped?

Labelled as a Netflix original, it was actually created and produced as a partnership between Universal Films and Legendary Films with a reasonable budget before a falling out left its release date shelved. In stepped Netflix, who purchased it, rebranded it a Netflix Original and released it. Spectral’s setting is quite cool. The battle scarred city looks brilliant, bleak and desolate. It’s timings don’t really make sense though with hints at an older Moldova but advanced technology, weopans and scientific ideals are quite often on show from the American forces. Written by Nic Mathieu, it actually comes across like a movie that could have been made in homage to a video game or a mix of video games like Prototype, Dues Ex and, in the battles, Gears of War or an advanced warfare Call of Duty. I don’t know if that was purposely done, probably not, but that’s what I got from it.


James Badge Dale plays the scientist, Clyne, and is the main star of the movie. He is nothing short of a genius, and having already designed many elements of the soldiers protective armour and weopanry when he arrives at the battle field, he is reasonably popular with some of the soldiers. That is a little different than in most movies with similar plots. The norm is for the scientist to be met with ridicule and disdain from the soldiers before earning their respect by saving them but that doesn’t happen with Clyne. On arrival at Ground Zero he is met by a CIA operative called Fran (Emily Mortimer) and the head of the operation General Orland (Bruce Greenwood).


He is informed of an anomaly that has shown up on some images taken during a failed mission. The image appears to show a ghostly figure and Clyne needs to confirm what it is by ruling out all other possibilities such as interference and tricks of light. It is pretty clear that nobody knows what is going on. There are strange things happening, soldiers are dying and now they have a picture of something but nobody has any idea of what it could actually be. Fran, refusing to jump to unscientific answers, is convinced it is some sort of advanced active camouflage while the soldiers seem to be leaning more towards the locals theory of dead soldiers seeking revenge. The biggest issue is that other than the one image, nobody can actually see these things with the naked eye. They just see soldiers dropping dead around them. Clyne puts his intelligence to good use by suggesting he uses a full spectrum camera, reverses engineers it a bit to make it shine a beam of light outwards like a torch, therefore exposing these things whenever the light falls upon them. So with that bit of genius out of the way, Clyne, Fran and a squad of soldiers led by Captain Sessions (Max Martini) head out into the battlefield with 2 missions, search and rescue any survivors of the latest attack and importantly get a clear picture or view of the potentially camouflaged enemy and figure out once and for all who or what they are.


Sounds like a reasonable plan right? Well, obviously things don’t work out quite so well. They arrive on location, find the very much dead bodies of the team they have come to rescue who are described as being frozen almost solid while simultaneously having their insides burned and boiled. Nice. They find one survivor, hidden under a ceramic bath tub, who has pretty much lost his mind having spent the last day or so hidden under there while these unseen enemies are all around him.. He looks at his team of rescuers and simply explains to them that they are all dead already. While this is happening, members of the rescue team start dropping like flies. They seem to be getting hit from an invisible force before crumpling to the floor, instantly dead. Bullets are flying, soldiers are dying and they cannot even see what is attacking them until finally Clyne, with his camera/torch beam on, manages to catch one of them in the light and we get a clear look at one of these spectrals. Now they are seen, a soldier can shoot it, camouflage or not right? Wrong, the bullets go right through it and hit the scenery behind it. As realisation dawns that this is no camouflaged soldier, they run. What was a team of around 30 soldiers is now but a handful as they make it to their vehicles and barely escape.


Let me just take a moment here to say that I think the spectrals look fantastic and terrifying. Obviously they are pure CGI, as many parts of the film are, but they have to be and they look bloody brilliant.

Anyway, back to the chase as they remaining soldiers attempt to escape but hit a landmine. With the vehicles out of use they run on foot, hunted by spectrals until they eventually make it to an abandoned building where they hold up and prepare for a final battle but as the spectrals are about to arrive, they are suddenly stopped by, it turns out, a ring of iron shavings on the floor. This makes no sense at first but does get explained, to a degree, nearer the end. So, a brief moment of respite, as the spectrals cannot cross the ground, allows the soldiers to regroup, formulate a plan and discover they aren’t alone in the building. After searching around they discover 2 young children, also holed up in the building. They make radio contact with their HQ and await rescue. As they wait, the spectrals get clever and start climbing nearby buildings so they can jump over the ring of iron and just as things start to get desperate again, a tank rolls into the courtyard to rescue them. It doesn’t go well with the tank and all reinforcements being destroyed within a matter of minutes. These spectrals are seriously hardcore, whatever they are. One chopper survives and as the last of the survivors make a run for it, something happens that doesn’t normally happen in these sort of films. The youngest of the two children gets killed by a spectral. Literally gets taken clean out, bang, right there on camera, so well done film makers for treading differently. This would normally be the bit where a kid nearly dies but a soldier saves her and dies instead.


On the chopper and finally safe, they are informed that HQ is destroyed and of the 200 men and women stationed there, only 19 remain. They end up at a refugee center far from the city with no hope and no clue as to how to fight these ghosts when bang, Clyne has a Eureka moment and proclaims them to not be ghosts but to instead be manmade. Their inability to pass through ceramic and their trouble with iron shavings has helped him to understand that they are actually a state of matter called Bose-Einstein-Condensate which gets really confusing but no matter, the scientific explanation is there though it is a stretch, and Clyne now has a plan to fight back by creating weapons that can disrupt that state of matter. Another stretch is required here as he then manages to make, from scratch, a shed load of super weapons from the equipment and scraps lying around. He makes armour from ceramic and they figure out the source of the attack and therefore the place where this advanced weapon has been created and they fight back leading to a huge, video game style battle similar to something like a Titanfall.


I guess the big thing with this film is that it reminds me so much of a video game, in fact, it is crying out for someone to make this into a game. It is action packed, reasonably well acted, though only really James Badge Dale and Max Martini have any story to get stuck into, and the guns, the machinery, the city and the enemy look really, really good. The story isn’t strong but is there to keep the action flowing and it does flow. The spectrals look scary and equally brilliant and the idea of countries trying to create super weapons like this is quite terrifying in itself. You do have to just accept certain unrealistic things like the very confusing scientific explanation, how a place like this afforded such a weapon and how Clyne made hundreds of never before made guns out of bits that were left lying around but if you can let go of a little bit of logic, it is quite a fun ride to go on. It is quite dark and it is interesting but mostly, it is just ferocious action and fun. The early parts of the film, when the soldiers cannot see the spectrals other than through the beam of one single torch also manage to be quite tense too, to add a little more darkness.

I feel like I probably like this more than others will, being a fan of video games, but I enjoyed it. I love the look of the spectrals and the battle scenes were great. The weapons are big and comic book like and the explanations are a stretch but who cares. It is definitely more sci-fi than horror, by a long shot, but it has tense moments, loads of death including that of a child and ghost like beings everywhere so there is plenty of darkness here too. Worth a watch, just don’t expect too much scientific logic and reasoning and you will probably enjoy it too.


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