Spectral (2016)

No real poster, as this is a Netflix original.
No real poster, as this is a Netflix original.

Directed by Nic Mathieu
Starring James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Max Martini, Bruce Greenwood and Ursula Parker

Incongruously pacifist DARPA researcher Mark Clyne (Dale) is called to war-torn Moldova to investigate a series of attacks by seemingly invisible enemies, detectable only using the hyper-spectral goggles developed by his team. The local General (Greenwood) and CIA liaison Fran Madison (Mortimer) think that the enemy insurgents are using active camouflage, while the locals blame the deaths on restless spirits. Clyne’s job is to get a decent picture of the attackers and help a Delta Force team led by Major Sessions (Mancini) to capture a sample of the active camo.

The team goes in and is soon under attack from an invisible, unstoppable foe, forcing the survivors to retreat into a building protected by a ring of iron filings. There they find a sister (Parker) and brother who explain that their father, a potter, laid down the ring of iron that keeps the ghosts – beings caught in state between life and death – away. Clyne, a regular MacGuyver, rigs up iron filing bombs and turns his camera into a searchlight to let them see the ‘ghosts’ without goggles and they make a break for a pick-up site. The ghosts trash their reinforcements and kill the Moldovan boy, but the rest escape by helicopter to learn that their base is overrun.

Realising that the ghosts are composed of matter in a Bose-Einstein condensate state, Clyne rapidly develops plasmic weapons and ceramic body armour for an attack on the power station that is the only possible source of enough energy to create such things. While the military combat wave after wave of condensate attackers with the aid of searchlight-carrying robot dogs (because why not,) Clyne and Madison reach the core, learn that an earth tremor broke containment and allowed the subjects of the Bose-Einstein experiment to turn on their creators, and disconnect the monster-maker. Finding the nervous systems of the subjects suspended in a state between life and death, Clyne switches them off, and is sent home as the military moves in teams to study the tech for their own use.

What’s wrong with it?

For identification purposes, this is not Gears of War.
For identification purposes, this is not Gears of War.

Spectral is another of those modern movies that plays like a short video game, with lots of very specific objectives, one-off tech, cover-based shooting, lever pulling and escort missions.

The film is very concerned with  questions of science and engineering and how awesome science is, and yet the actual science is very, very bad. Seriously, Clyne turns his camera into a searchlight by – I shit you not – reversing the polarity, and goes on to create a small army’s worth of high tech weapons and armour that looks as if it were machined in a factory or props department workshop, rather than knocked up on the fly in a cave with a box of scraps.

Clyne is rightly skeptical of the ability of Moldovan insurgency to source superior active camo, but apparently turning people into Bose-Einstein condensate supersoldiers is a known field of Moldovan scientific expertise.

The characters are thinly sketched at best, with most of the Delta Force soldiers distinguishable only by facial hair.

What’s right with it?

For identification purposes, this is not Call of Duty.
For identification purposes, this is not Call of Duty.

By the standards of direct-to-TV (or in this case, streaming) sci-fi movies, Spectral tells a pretty tight story, with a build up and a conclusion and everything, even if the last third basically kicks into an entirely different style of gameplay. I mean storytelling.

The plasmic beings are actually pretty eerie, especially once they get lit up.

There is no tacked on romance, and Madison and Clyne ultimately part as mutually respectful colleagues.

Clyne remains the quiet engineer to the end, never morphing unconvincingly into a man of action. Even his rallying cry is an appeal to Newton and Einstein: “If someone made them, they don’t escape the laws of the world. Nothing does.”

How bad is it really?

For identification purposes, this is... actually pretty cool.
For identification purposes, this is… actually pretty cool.

For a low budget, small screen SF film, Spectral is actually pretty decent. It’s nothing groundbreaking and it’s not going to set the world on fire, but there are worse ways to spend a couple of idle hours.

Best bit (if such there is)?

For identification purposes, this is not Platoon.
For identification purposes, this is not Platoon.

With the enemy closing in on the helicopter, Clyne takes his bandolier of homemade grenades and smashes them all on the ground, letting the wash from the helicopter rotors carry the disabling iron filings into the enemy lines.

What’s up with…?

  • Modovia, home of ghost science?


Production values – Decent. I doubt it would transfer to the big screen, but for a modern TV-oriented SF production it is definitely a cut above SyFy. 6
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is almost entirely functional, revealing much more about the plot than about the characters. We only engage at all because the cast, primarily composed of top-drawer b-listers, give it their all. 11
Plot and execution – Decently paced and structured, the plot is however a little gamey, especially in its radical third act escalation and adherence to clear waypoints at all times. 9
Randomness – Major points for reversing the polarity, and the apparently room temperature Bose-Einstein condensates powered by disembodied nervous systems. 13
Waste of potential – As a Netflix original SF movie, this had a low bar to clear – if higher than SyFy original – and clear it it did, even if it didn’t quite stick the landing. 4

Overall 43%


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