[Review] Spectral: This is why you should never take yourself too seriously
When I first heard of Spectral, I was excited. Billed as a grittier version of Ghostbusters set in a Black Hawk Down-esque setting, it looked like it had all the makings of an intriguing action film.
And indeed, the opening moments of the film looked promising as well, leaping straight into the fray with a lone Delta forces soldier stranded amidst some anonymously smoldering ruins.
Later on, we find out that it’s actually Moldova, some suitably remote Eastern European country whose history you can distort without anyone really noticing.
But so far so good, right? Said soldier gets killed in action by a mysterious spectral entity that can only be viewed through special goggles (we never really find out what he was there for), and we’re given a fairly juicy premise for the rest of the movie to build on.
Unfortunately, it only goes downhill from there. We’re barely introduced to the character of DARPA engineer Mark Clyne, before he’s flown out to Moldova to consult on these ghostly sightings. See, he designed those futuristic goggles, so the army’s flying him out to assess what exactly is causing these strange apparitions.
Turns out people have been turning up dead, with their internal organs frozen but their skin scorched. No one knows what’s causing it – CIA officer Fran Madison thinks it’s some advanced cloaking technology used by Moldovian insurgents, but Clyne isn’t so sure. He waxes philosophical about how everyone is biased and more evidence is needed when pressed for an answer, and so they set out to take better pictures of these wee ghosties with some giant ass camera.
Predictably, the mission goes to hell, and most of the squad is taken out by these spectres that quite literally kill by touch (no really, they just run into you and that’s that). We’re treated to some quite frankly thrilling scenes of these apparitions swooping through hapless warm bodies, but if I’m being honest, that’s all the show really offers.
In an abandoned factory, they find a couple of young children – a brother-sister pair that tells them that these spirits, or “aratare” as the locals call them, are lost souls who are trapped in a limbo between life and death. Maybe that’s supposed to be some thinly veiled statement on the horrors of war and how it disturbs the peace, or maybe not.
Either way, things quickly fall apart again, but not before everyone has the chance to cobble together some iron filing grenades. Apparently, iron filings stop the aratare, and everyone races through the streets to a certain rendezvous point while lobbing iron bombs at the ghostly locals.
More casualties are taken, one of the kids dies, and Clyne dramatically slams a belt of iron grenades onto the ground and disperses a ton of the stuff in the vicinity. Clearly, we’re meant to think of him as having saved the day from the encroaching masses, but Spectral manages to spoil the moment by having him sit dumbstruck on the floor and needing to be carried off like a child.
Seriously though, where are all the civilians? And these entities went from being occasional sightings to a veritable horde. Is there a breeding ground somewhere?
That said, all these details wouldn’t matter if Spectral managed to deliver a satisfactory ending (it does not). At a refugee bunker somewhere, we’re told that the aratare have overrun the main US base, and all the survivors are now stuck in the same bunker (boohoo).
Out of the blue, Clyne has a moment of revelation as to what the aratare really are, that is, not actually ghosts. He spews more scientific explanations about how they’re something called Bose-Einstein condensate, and how he can now make weapons to stop them (yay, weapons upgrade!).
This scene is ample demonstration of one of Spectral's greatest weaknesses – it is so preoccupied with the hard science that it just ends up sounding silly. There's nothing wrong with basing your film on science, but when your movie involves ghostly forms terrorizing a city, it's probably best to lay off on pretending that there's a reasonable explanation for it.
Basically, they're weapons of war, which seems a far more mundane explanation than restless spirits. Up till this point, Spectral has also failed to give any of its characters a semblance of depth beyond genius scientist and concerned CIA officer. What is Clyne’s backstory? Does he have any family? Don't know. Don't care.
Nevermind interesting logic gaps like how a beat-up refugee bunker has all the hardware required to build high-tech weaponry in what seems a matter of hours. Spectral plays out like a line ar video game, where better upgrades automatically become available as you progress through the storyline, eventually culminating in a final boss fight.
The entire party troops off to where all the aratare originally spawned, and a huge climactic battle ensues. This really consists of the US forces duking it out on the roof of some sort of power plant, while Clyne and Madison delve into the building to shut down the aratare once and for all. This involves literally pulling out a bunch of cables. from some large, menacing contraption (how crude).
I’ll just let the screenshots below do the talking:
All in all, Spectral makes for good entertainment, but the special effects and promising premise ultimately fail to make up for the thin story, convenient saves, and characters that have all the depth of stick figures. A touch of levity might have redeemed it, but its self-important gravitas results in a tired action film with zero emotional impact.