When it comes to their original film catalogue, Netflix has mostly stayed away from larger and more ambitious genre offerings up to this point, at least beyond breakout movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Sword of Destiny from the start of this year. That is now changing with the streaming platform being exclusively host to Spectral, a sci-fi thriller that was formerly picked up for theatrical distribution by Universal, who even initially gave it a release date of August 12th this year, only to then drop the movie from their schedule this past June for unknown reasons. Whatever the case was, Universal abruptly washed their hands of Spectral, though the movie was more or less a finished product by that point, so shelving it would certainly be a pretty huge waste.
This hiccup with Universal led to Netflix scooping up the distribution rights, hence why Spectral is now a Netflix Original Film, rather than a theatrical release. Netflix has done this a few times now, swooping in to save a few movies that might have been denied a public release entirely, were it not for the streaming service’s intervention. This may sadly be contributing to Netflix’s exclusive movie catalogue being pretty spotty, since not every movie deserves to be saved from gathering metaphorical dust on the metaphorical shelf, though in the case of Spectral, it is a welcome effort. Spectral isn’t anything groundbreaking or amazing, but it is a very respectable popcorn thriller with a sci-fi flavour, one that defies its low budget with a decent amount of style and inspiration. If you’re looking for an easy watch that’s pretty cool in the moment, this is a movie that Netflix subscribers will have a solid amount of fun with, at least once it gets going.
Spectral stars James Badge Dale as Dr. Mark Clyne, a DARPA scientist who is called to Moldova during an insurgency, to investigate an anomaly that American soldiers happened to capture on their video feeds. Clyne is joined by CIA Delta Force handler, Fran Madison, played by Emily Mortimer, and Delta Force leader, Major Sessions, played by Max Martini, in an effort to investigate and stop whatever mysterious event is starting to devastate the warring military forces.
Spectral has a fairly solid cast going for it, with Dale, Mortimer and Martini all being reliable core actors that know their parts very well. The supporting cast is also pretty solid, primarily with the inclusion of Bruce Greenwood as a US Army General that you see far too little of, and Clayne Crawford as Delta Force soldier, Sergeant Toll, who is one of the more engaging personalities in this movie, and has recently been elevating FOX’s surprisingly decent new Lethal Weapon TV series as Martin Riggs. The body count in this movie is fairly high, and you won’t get to know most of the characters before they’re axed off, but the persistent personalities manage to do enough to keep your attention, if just barely.
That said though, a clear weakness in Spectral is the fact that its characters feel under-written, and don’t manage to stand out. Had it not been for the very respectable lead and supporting cast, almost every character-driven scene would simply fail to grab the audience’s attention in any way. There’s a few noteworthy instances where Spectral tries for some big drama, and sadly, it doesn’t often work, simply because there isn’t enough to connect the audience with the characters. You can connect with the simple basis of survival against the movie’s invisible killers, but that’s about it. There really isn’t anything else there, and that creates a frustrating lack of depth among a cast that really could have used more to work with.
When all is said and done, Spectral manages to spin a decent story. As with the characters, the story sometimes tries for themes and nuance that it doesn’t totally succeed at however, and it might have been better if Spectral had fully committed to being a straightforward, dopey B-movie. That might have made the rather flat characters a little more engaging too, or at least it would have made it a bit easier for the audience to forgive the lack of real depth behind the movie’s personalities.
Another problem with Spectral regarding its storyline is that its first act is painfully slow. There’s a lot of buildup to the mysterious attackers that end up becoming the main menace of Spectral, and because the characters in this movie are often so flat, it will simply have you impatient to get to the good stuff. Once the second act hits and the invisible monsters are unleashed though, the story momentum picks up a lot, and doesn’t truly let up until the end credits. Again, it’s nothing amazing, but as a quick-fix thriller, Spectral is quite competent, and it does have a good handful of genuinely exciting moments while it lasts.
In fact, the concept behind this movie is a really good one, even beyond the medium of film. One persistent thought that I, and no doubt at least some other people, had while watching Spectral is, “Oh man, this would be awesome if it were a video game!” The story progression of Spectral even seems like it deliberately echoes sci-fi shooter game franchises such as Gears of War and Half-Life, and hell, even the name ‘Spectral‘ sounds like the title of a video game. If people were allowed to actually play as these soldiers and gradually build resources to evade and hunt deadly monsters, invisible to the naked eye, and that can kill with a touch, that would be an incredibly scary and entertaining experience!
Alas though, it’s not a perfect world, so Spectral is a movie, not a video game. Even if it’s not in its apparent ideal medium though, Spectral is still a good bit of fun, once it gets past its sluggish first act. It doesn’t really invite sequels, nor does it begged to be watched more than once, but it’s enjoyable for what it is, and gamers especially will probably be quite entertained by it.
Spectral is directed by Nic Mathieu, who is a complete unknown director with no known resume behind him at this point. Adding to that is that Mathieu is a replacement director, brought on after Marco Polo and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales co-directors, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg ultimately the project. Considering that he’s a complete unknown however, Mathieu does a fairly solid job, if not a perfect one.
When Spectral is showcasing the mayhem of its ghostly monsters, that’s really when the direction is at its best. You get a great sense of just how unpredictable and dangerous the so-called ‘Spectrals’ are whenever they’re portrayed, cutting through soldiers en masse, and being seemingly unstoppable. Mathieu seems to have a solid eye for action, and he does manage to inject a decent amount of thrills into a movie that doesn’t seem to have that large of a budget behind it. Beyond a few clumsy uses of slow-motion shots that probably didn’t need to be there, the visual direction behind Spectral is actually quite solid.
Where Mathieu seems to falter though is in clearly not having much interest behind portraying any of the human characters that effectively. Again, there’s an attempt to be smart and edgy in terms of things like the rapid progression of technology and the horrors of war, but it just leads to a feeling that Spectral is biting off more than it can chew by attempting themes like that. Making this worse is that Mathieu’s direction seems barely present during the dialogue-driven scenes, which just listlessly hang over actors reciting bare-bones dialogue. Spectral doesn’t manage to find a real sense of humanity in the end, and that’s a shame, though at least it still manages to kick a satisfactory bit of ass.
The music suite behind Spectral is composed by Junkie XL, who has actually been behind some of the best movie soundtracks of 2016, with Deadpool and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s great soundtracks particularly coming to mind. Disappointingly though, it seems like Junkie XL is kind of phoning this one in. The soundtrack behind Spectral does its job, and goes for something of a haunting feel, but there’s never much in the way of real passion behind it. It’s perfunctory and mostly unremarkable.
The rest of the audio work is fairly decent, especially towards the genuinely explosive climax. There isn’t too much audio behind the titular monsters, but that actually works somewhat to their benefit, since it makes them feel a bit more unpredictable and unnatural. The rest of Spectral mainly consists of heavy action, and a few choice audio cues that come up when the soldiers inevitably start finding a way to defend themselves against their attackers. It’s all very acceptable, without really standing out. Then again, when you have to enjoy Spectral at home, rather than in a movie theatre, maybe that’s a little easier to forgive.
As I said, Spectral really doesn’t have the largest budget, and that’s apparent in many of the close-up scenes. To a point, this seems to be intentional though, since it appears to be an attempt to make Spectral feel real and grounded, keeping it firmly earthbound even while it sics spooky spirits on its lead characters. There’s a very respectable commitment to practical effects in quite a few scenes too, with many of the weapons, explosions and other such action bits and props all being real, rather than just done with CGI, as many other low-budget sci-fi movies would have resorted to.
Obviously, the titular Spectrals are done with CGI though, since there’s not really any other reasonable choice there, even though you don’t see them regularly until later in the movie. The invisibility of the Spectrals is no doubt a trick to alleviate the low budget in a sci-fi movie like this too, and this ‘cloaking’ of monsters is a very popular technique for preserving funds by effects artists in these kinds of movies. Fortunately, when you do finally properly see the Spectrals, they don’t disappoint.
The Spectrals look pretty good, and offer just the right balance between being scary and supernatural, while still feeling eerily alive and sentient. Even when they’re visible during certain action scenes, as the lead characters start devising ways to see them, they’re well-realized and flow well with the rest of the action, always managing to feel real, even when most of the rest of the movie is primarily put together on practical effects. Obviously, it’s all well beneath the standard of a big theatrical blockbuster, but for an original low-budget sci-fi movie that ultimately went straight to Netflix, Spectral has a solid amount of visual polish behind it.
It’s kind of a shame that Netflix snuck Spectral onto their streaming platform with minimal promotion, on the same day as the second season of Fuller House of all things to boot, since this movie really is one of Netflix’s better original films. Perhaps the better-than-usual final product comes from the fact that Spectral was originally all set to come to theatres this past Summer before Universal yanked it, but either way, considering that Netflix is at a clear disadvantage with original genre films in contrast to big theatrical blockbusters, Spectral turned out fairly well for them.
Obviously though, the movie is far from perfect, and you do have to have some understanding of what you’re getting with it. Spectral is all about action and its admittedly very cool concept, so if you just want a popcorn thriller that doesn’t demand much of you, and you have a taste for sci-fi in particular, this is one of the handful of Netflix-exclusive movies that really is worth watching. You probably won’t watch it more than once, but in the moment, Spectral is a neat movie that does feel bold and original with its core conflict, and I’m glad that it didn’t ultimately end up permanently shelved.
After all of its weird production and release snafus, Spectral deserves better than the hand it was ultimately dealt for its final release. This is all the more true when one recalls that Spectral is a fully original genre movie (some have pointed out similarities to 2001’s ill-received video game-inspired movie, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, though that movie’s story direction is very different), one that isn’t a remake or adaptation of anything else, and was designed right from the beginning to be a movie. Again, this movie might have been even better as a video game, where it might have gotten away with a few of its storytelling shortcomings a lot more, but what we got with Spectral is quite competent, and fairly enjoyable. That’s good for its first-time director, but more than that, that’s good for Netflix, who still feels light years away from offering any serious competition to movie theatre offerings.
- Solid lead and supporting cast
- Visual and action direction is engaging
- Neat, original concept for a movie
- Characters are flat and largely lack personality
- Slow, dull first act
- Direction quality is inconsistent