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Netflix’s Spectral Contains the Makings of a Much More Interesting Movie (Review)

It’s passable late night entertainment but with a script that made better use of its ideas, it could’ve been a lot more.
Spectral - Nic Mathieu

The only thing better than a training montage in a movie is an assembly montage, i.e., when our heroes unleash their inner A-Team and begin cobbling together weapons and equipment from whatever random junk or refuse is lying about. A good assembly montage tells us that our heroes, despite being up against the wall and facing terrible odds, might have just enough pluck and resourcefulness to make it through.

There’s a really great assembly montage in the final act of Spectral where our heroes — a group of beleaguered soldiers in an Eastern European town, plus one scientist — begin assembling fanciful weaponry in order to defeat the ghosts (or “hyperspectral anomalies,” in the movie’s parlance) that have been killing them off one by one. One minute, the team is pulling apart circuit boards and random devices, the next minute they’re slapping together some pretty high-powered weaponry. It doesn’t make much sense, but the soldiers sure look cool packing their new hardware.

In a better movie, that would be enough.

Spectral is cobbled together from a bunch of different movies (e.g., Aliens, Ghostbusters, Black Hawk Down, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It leads to a lot of semi-futuristic military hardware being paraded around, along with the requisite tough guy talk and military-sounding terminology. But Spectral ultimately never does anything interesting with any of it. Or rather, it does pretty much exactly what you expect it to do even as you find yourself wanting something more.

To be fair, Spectral does try to come up with a novel explanation for its ghost-like foes, one that’s more grounded in science than superstition. But it’s clearly just a bunch of science-y gobbledigook that’s there to shoehorn in a debate about what science can, and can’t, explain. Actually, “debate” is too generous a term; we’re talking to a couple of tossed off lines in one scene.

The most frustrating thing about Spectral is realizing that it contains the elements of a much better movie, or at least a more interesting one. I’m not a big horror fan, but I did find myself wishing I felt more terrified at least part of the time. Aside from a jump scare or two, Spectral contains hardly any suspense. It doesn’t help that characters frequently launch into long speeches and discussions that are intended to communicate important details but just end up killing the movie’s momentum. We’re meant to think our protagonists’ plight is hopeless and their foes implacable, but there’s nothing relentless in the pacing. I doubt you’ll ever feel like anyone’s truly in danger even as the bodies start dropping.

That might be improved if there was a memorable or sympathetic character in the bunch. Instead, you’ve got a bunch of clichés walking around in uniform. Even worse, the soldiers pick up a couple of kids halfway through the movie. Cute kids in danger are rarely true characters in any storyline. They’re plot devices intended to garner viewer sympathy and make us feel something. But their usage in Spectral is so obvious that, as soon as one of them falls in danger — and in a rather stupid manner, I might add — I was counting the seconds until the inevitable happened. And when it did, it was clear the movie did so because it needed to check something off the list, not further the storyline or give us any insight into the characters’ plight.

Getting back to the horror aspect, Spectral’s most egregious flaw becomes apparent with the final revelation about the ghosts’ origins and nature. That was the one moment where I got chills due to the revelation’s disturbing and horrific ramifications, which by themselves would be an interesting premise for a movie. By that time, however, it’s too late to do anything with them other than to give our movie’s main character — a smart alecky engineer responsible for much of the soldiers’ tech gear — an opportunity to get teary-eyed and mumble something about the limits of science.

I realize I’m coming down pretty hard on Spectral. While not nearly as interesting as Netflix’s previous original sci-fi movie, Arq, Spectral can make for passable late night entertainment if you’ve got some downtime after putting the kids to bed. Especially if you want to watch some explosions and cool-looking gear get slung around. (For all its flaws, Spectral’s production and prop design is solid. And again, that aforementioned assembly scene is good nerdy fun.) But if you’re looking for a movie with those aforementioned details that’s also exciting and emotionally engaging (i.e., scary and thrilling), then keep looking.

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