Director: Nic Mathieu
Writer: George Nolfi, Ian Fried, Nic Mathieu
Producer: Jillian Share
Stars: James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Max Martini, Cory Hardrict, Bruce Greenwood, Clayne Crawford, Gonzalo Menendez, Ursula Parker, Louis Ozawa Changchien
An engineer must help military Special Forces fight against an assault from spectral entities in a European warzone.
Someone at Activision who works on “Call of Duty,” or possibly at Ubisoft on the Tom Clancy franchise, likely saw “Spectral” and thought, “that could have been our next concept.” Take the sleek-suited future soldiers of “Crysis,” drop them into the tactical strategy of “Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter,” pit a pinch of “Gears of War” machismo against a seemingly supernatural enemy, and you’re nearly all the way there with a video game shooter in film form.
Whatever the original application was for Dr. Mark Clyne’s hyperspectral UV goggles, U.S. Special Forces inadvertently uncovered another use. Soldiers have started dying in an Eastern European warzone with their skin burned and their inside organs frozen. Video recovered from helmet cameras identifies the invisible attackers as ghost-like shrouds that somehow, only Dr. Clyne’s special tech can see.
Local civilians whisper legends of supernatural spirits born from the horrors of war. CIA liaison Fran Madison laughably thinks insurgents have developed cloaking camouflage. General Orland isn’t sure what to believe. That’s why he summons Dr. Clyne across the world to Moldova to investigate the anomalies firsthand.
The wily scientist teams up with a group of grunts on a rescue mission into urban rubble where a beefed-up build of Clyne’s camera confirms everyone’s fears. These “spectrals” appear human even though they can walk through walls and singlehandedly explode tanks. Worse, without knowing what they even are, Clyne doesn’t have the first idea how to stop them.
“Spectral” likely had other ambitions once upon a time, evidenced by act one introductions dropping seeds that never see sunlight. I can’t imagine Emily Mortimer signed on for second billing to only be useful in an early scene of exposition and forced inclusion in the finale. Doe-eyed exchanges with James Badge Dale hint at a more intimate relationship for the duo that doesn’t develop. (Five gets you ten at least one script draft linked them differently.) It’s refreshing that “Spectral” avoids that traveled road, though it doesn’t replace a potentially unused romantic role with anything more relevant. Literally anyone else could be the “it’s not ghosts, it’s cloaking technology” counterpoint.
At first, the jarheads are stereotypically unwelcoming of the technobabble interloper replacing their .50 caliber cannon with a science-shooting camera. Once more “Spectral” lays a predictable trail only to thankfully pick it up. Dr. Clyne gets in good with the guys asap and the expected burly boys looking down on an embedded civilian angle disappears PDQ.
Also disappearing is any deep development for this crew. The story wouldn’t suffer from fewer squad members. None of their names need to be remembered, as one soldier is as replaceable as the next. Familiar faces in the secondary cast nevertheless do their best to bite into dithering dialogue and put some sliver of personality into their interchangeability.
Subplot buds don’t sprout because their earth is salted by going gangbusters on stunts and explosions greeting gunfire and ghost attacks. 105 minutes is probably 15 too many, though “Spectral” is gung ho regarding its detour into action cinema convention. Ideas of anti-war themes are no match for montages of armoring up and building weapons to a soundtrack suitable for workout music. On the flip side, sign on the line for a blood and bullets near-future military shooter with a sci-fi twist and “Spectral” will whisk you right to the frontlines.
“Spectral” is at home on Netflix. Lower the look using considerably less money, swap star James Badge Dale with Dean Cain, and you’re looking at a SyFy MOW. Bulk up the budget by $50,000,000, remove Dale for Damon or Cruise, and “Spectral” could go straight to the multiplex.
Apparently, theatrical distribution was initially the plan. Producers rightly realized that by splitting the difference between potential A-lister vehicle and DTV filler, “Spectral” makes most sense as an online original. It isn’t blockbuster enough to warrant a night out of the house. But as an immediately available streaming option for an evening’s entertainment, it’s an enjoyable way to justify not getting up from the couch.
Review Score: 65