Movie Review: “Spectral”

Tentpoles are the lifeblood of Hollywood, and that’s a damn shame. The amount of money Disney and other studios hurl at the screen for their event pictures is mind boggling. But to what end?

Even before the events of 2020 shut down movie theaters, the overall direction of cinema was in question. Would it be an endless string of gigantic budgets, wall-to-wall CGI spectacle forever and ever? If so, would those be the only films studios wanted to create due to the chance at “Endgame” levels of money? And in pursuing that almighty dollar sign, what other ill effects would beset the struggling industry?

In the age of the tentpole, there is something to be said for the almost lost art of the mid-range actioner. These are the type of films that have a limited number of sets, two, maybe three actors with any serious name recognition, run 90 minutes or less on a shoestring budget, and have absolutely zero fat on them. They get in, tell the story they want, and get out. The larger studios have mostly abandoned these in recent years in favor of a tentpole strategy and it’s a true shame.

   Netflix has embraced this manner of budget-conscious film making to mixed results, but one of their successes is 2016’s “Spectral.” It’s airtight, has a great concept, and a solid cast. It’s excellent when the tension ratchets up, and makes every scene count.

   James Badge Dale (“24” & “Iron Man 3”) stars as an engineer/scientist whose speciality is high-tech weapons and gadgets used by the military. Imagine his surprise when he gets a call from a general in a war-torn European city that needs him to clarify an image that’s appeared on gear he specifically built for the military. When Dale’s character arrives in Europe, he meets a general (Bruce Greenwood) and a CIA operative (Emily Mortimer) who show him footage of a ghost killing a US soldier.

   Conflicting opinions lead to debates as to whether the “spectral anomalies” are cloaked enemy soldiers, or something else. Dale joins forces with the members of a special ops squad to figure out what those images are, and how to neutralize them. When they find out the hard way as to what they’re up against, they have to work together to survive in the ruins of a bombed out city while also struggling to keep a handful of survivors alive.

   It’s a classic Alamo style film with a supernatural backdrop. “Spectral” makes every special effects shot count. The “ghosts” look incorporeal and dangerous with fluid movement once riled to action. The key to pulling a film like this off is escalation. The stakes grow worse and worse as the dwindling number of heroes are faced with one bad choice after another.

   It also features one great example of minimalist storytelling. When the general arrives at a shelter, he’s asked how many people he brought with him.

   “Not many,” he says with a gut wrenching expression of anguish and fear. Greenwood sells it like the pro he is. Belief in your surroundings, no matter how crazy the script may be, is a critical component to selling the reality of the film.

   I hate the attitude in some films where the protagonist winks at the audience or says something serious only to be undercut a second later by a joke. This never fails to piss me off because the audience needs to connect with characters that believe the situation they’re in. Remove that belief, and you remove any reason for an audience to care about the film they’re watching.

   There’s also an ethereal beauty to the film, especially towards the end when the focus turns away from the people and towards battling the ghosts. There’s the big CGI finale, to be sure, but the quiet moments afterward were expertly handled. Once the fighting is done, the film zeroes back in on the people.

   Is the film ridiculous? Hell yes it is, and I love that. It offers up a crazy premise then sticks with it start to finish. Rules are established and adhered to. Characters demonstrate growth. There isn’t a maudlin, tacked-on love story to drag the momentum to a halt. But the film also has a great montage of people building stuff in a workshop to go fight ghosts using high tech gear and machines and the inner child in me loses his mind during sequences like this.

   On the downside, the film assumes plenty about how the military would negatively address and combat such a threat while also treating the soldiers as little more than stormtroopers. Can a ghost blow through a platoon or two of soldiers? Sure can, and they sure do. Meanwhile, the people in the Pentagon are little more than stuffy generals looking for their next project to dump endless amounts of taxpayer funds into.

   That last one may be accurate.

   Does “Spectral” make sense in the end? Not really. The ending is messy and despite the choreography being pretty solid throughout, it’s easy to lose where people are in the end because they’re overshadowed by the glowing light show. The film starts as a ghost story melded to the real world, evolves into an Alamo-siege, and shifts again into a Frankenstein tale, sans the good doctor.

   This is where “Spectral” gets a knock, from me. When you remove the cause of destruction, all that’s left is the result of the work and how it’s killing people. Absent a solid flesh and blood villain, it’s difficult to do much more than hope the main characters all make it through. People need a great villain to root against unless the elements are the enemy ala “The Martian.” “Spectral” isn’t that kind of movie but leans extra hard in that direction.

Once it’s done, the movie is over. There’s no messy epilogue or lessons learned sequence, and I respect it for that. The story ends as it should, and that is a big win in my book. If you have some time and are in the market for a solid sci-fi actioner, “Spectral” might be just what you’re looking for.

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