The Moldova of Nic Mathieu’s 2016 directorial debut, Spectral, is a blasted, destroyed landscape, full of war and refugees without end. Everyone in this film is displaced to one extent or another by ongoing political instability, from the civilians hunkered down in bunkers to protagonist Mark Clyne, a DARPA researcher played by James Badge Dale who is sent from Virginia to Eastern Europe to troubleshoot a possible technology malfunction on-site. Whether it’s set in the present day or the near future is unclear, although the technology on gleaming, fetishistic display is far enough advanced to suggest the latter, even if it springs from some projects currently in development, like quadrupedal robots. If you decide to take the 107 minutes to watch this (on Netflix, where it was released), you’re going to be spending a lot of time looking at machines, as well as the people who operate them.
The film’s beats are familiar to any viewer who has seen Aliens (1986), Starship Troopers (1997), or similar military science fiction stories, from the orphaned waif with secret knowledge to effects-heavy firefight sequences that only resolve after a targeted strike. Added supernatural frisson comes from the film’s titular antagonists: hyperspectrals, murderous entities of unknown origin that are visible only via the use of advanced optical devices fielded by Delta Force teams. The pacing and shots, however, tell a clear genre story, as it lacks almost entirely the jump scares of many contemporary horror films, or the slow-building dread of classics like The Haunting (1963) or Alien (1975).
If you’re looking for a decent action flick to watch over the holidays, you could do a lot worse than Spectral. Lacking the R rating of bug-hunts like Aliens, this PG-13 film is low on gore, and the many deaths on screen are largely bloodless. The fatigue and street battle action all feel plausible, with none of the hyper-masculine banter and action the genre often features. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, few female characters with audience rooting interest. Emily Mortimer gets plenty of screen time in her co-lead role as CIA officer Fran Madison, and she has a significant role in the narrative’s unfolding, but for most of the film she serves as a foil and aid to Clyne, moving in and out of her role as CIA “mission control” as the plot demands. The actors who played the various Delta Force soldiers all do serviceable jobs, though their mortality rate and a largely undistinguished script caused them to blur together for me. Bruce Greenwood gives a decent, if slightly reserved, performance as General Orland, leader of the U.S. troops deployed to the area. Elsewhere I’ve said Spectral ranks “three specters out of five,” and that’s where I land, review-wise. From this point on we enter spoiler territory.
As Netflix has shrunk their catalogue in order to focus on producing original shows, increasingly their streaming options have included one-star stinkers that lack the charm of VHS-era direct-to-video. Spectral, originally slated for a theater release by Legendary Pictures, is more engaging than said one-star snoozes, as well as many other good military SF films, and certainly more so than big budget disasters like 2013’s inexplicably and unforgivably boring Ender’s Game. This stems from many things, but none more than its nuanced treatment of environments subjected to human reshaping and degradation. That the characters are aware of these processes is clear, though they rarely interrogate them, and instead seem to take it for granted as the price that is necessary for states to operate, whether controlling internal conflict, or projecting global force.
Spectral shows off landscapes ruined by humans from the outset, and for the most part doesn’t show anything like pristine spaces. The opening sequence follows a Delta Force veteran, cut off from his comrades and in need of evac. En route to his fatal encounter, where we get our first glimpse of a hyperspectral, he crosses shattered, rubble-choked spaces and rooms, a built landscape undone by some unknown conflict, the precise nature of which is ultimately irrelevant to the film.
This theme of damaged landscape carries through into the next scene, where we meet Clyne, hunting through a Virginia junkyard for a difficult-to-obtain toxic chemical. Current government regulations, including those which surround the DARPA lab where he works, render legitimate access problematic, but as a cynical and knowledgable scientist, Clyne is aware that regulatory loopholes have allowed 1990s-era cartridges containing said material to go unnoticed in the middle of a space designated for ruination.
Even the “clean” spaces of the movie, labs and modular command posts, are shown in aging, time-worn contexts, not the gleaming, technophilic aura that surrounds Tony Stark’s primary bases of operation in Iron Man (2008), The Avengers (2012), etc. Toward the conclusion, during a retreat from a (human) attack on Orland’s base to a civilian refugee bunker, Osprey helicopters bring giant crates of useful, still-intact supplies and land these gleaming, metallic arks on piles of mounds of dirt and rubble. Anything safe, hygienic, or useful exists in a protected space, subject to pollution once the seals are broken, whether that pollution is noxious gas or decays of protocol.
While an early red herring suggests that the hyperspectrals may be “aratare,” ghosts of war raised by the suffering of war’s victims, the enemies on screen are all human or man-made. They are, it develops, 3D-printed ghosts that were formed out of Bose-Einstein condensate in the heart of a power plant that is the setting for the climax. Here Clyne and Madison make their way through a corpse-laden research facility to discover the origin of and destroy the enemy. They find, however, that these weaponized specters are on the loose due to a disaster, that freed many of their number from the holding cells where half of their number still rage. Along with these cells, our protagonists find that these manufactured ghosts are controlled by intact human nervous systems extracted from bodies and imprisoned in coffin-like structures where they are kept in a constant state of pain. Ending the menace involves a struggle to decouple various tubes and clamps giant, with no clear understanding of what side-effects may arise from the systems’ destruction, and no possible salvation for the population of imprisoned and tormented undead cyborgs.
Meanwhile, Delta Force is busy waging an all-out assault on the hyperspectrals outside of the plant. The creation of the guns they use is a MacGyver-like feat of engineering by Clyne, and in keeping with his junkyard opening, these weapons are unclean. What exactly goes into them, we don’t know, but each gun uses a large cartridge (battery? chemical?), and each shot releases a roiling cloud of dark, opaque smoke. The gunners all wear not merely heavy gear, but masks clearly designed to protect them from the weapons’ effluent. They are fighting hard-to-see monsters that rise like noxious gas from the earth, an environmental danger that they cannot combat with conventional armaments, the merely human soldiers powerless against their foes, like doughboys unequipped to face chemical weapons. Ultimately the U.S. forces beat the hyperspectrals with toxic pulse rifles that leave behind gases of unknown danger and duration, presumably somewhere on the spectrum between land mines in Cambodia and depleted uranium in Iraq.
Spectral is an imperfect film, with science, engineering, and physics that even Baron von Frankenstein would look askance at, but the running motif of interaction of technology and environment is thoughtfully embedded throughout, in ways large and small. The camera’s fetishistic languor when it comes to gear—weapons tests, modifying cameras, assembling guns, destroying laboratories—goes beyond signature cinematic parallels from Aliens or Commando (1985), and instead recalls the constant study, selection, and upgrading of technology embedded in shooter and other video games. Given Spectral‘s heavy use of CGI, as well as floating camera shots of battle scenes, this is perhaps not a surprise. Clyne boards a plane out of Moldova at the end, having navigated ruined environments that could have been lifted right out of either the Call of Duty franchise or the civilian-centered This War of Mine (2014). The war of Spectral is ongoing, and not won by film’s end, so Clyne’s departure doesn’t signal victory for the “good guys,” so much as it indicates that a dangerous obstacle has been removed, an environmental conflict ingeniously managed, and conflict can now proceed as usual. The film ends with Clyne swallowed up in the belly of an Osprey, ready to be transported from the field of combat back to Virginia, where he will presumably return to the lab, and resume development of new technologies.