Updated: Nov 4, 2021

I want to begin by being upfront about something that is pretty obvious. Being that I served in the United States Air Force, military movies capture my imagination, especially science fiction military movies. Ranging from war classics like Patton and A Bridge Too Far to modern war movies like Lone Survivor and The Outpost, these kinds of movies are the ones I can most relate to. Never mind that I was a member of the "Chair Force." However, they are also the ones I hold most accountable to reality, even in the imaginative realm of science fiction. The same holds for Spectral.


Spectral (2016)

Directed by: Nic Mathieu

Written by: Ian Fried, Nic Mathieu, George Nolfi

Music by: Junkie XL

Stars: James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Greenwood

Watch on: Netflix

Review Alpha


Spectral opens with a lone soldier, Sergeant Davis, running under an overpass in a war-torn city. The opening scene does an excellent job of showing how genuinely awful urban warfare is. We see debris scattered across the roadway, gunfire, explosions in the background, and mounds of rubble that Davis uses for cover. Making contact with his command, Sergeant Davis is given a stay-put order for evac that should arrive in 8-10 minutes. What does the sergeant do? Just what we would expect him to do; he disregards the evac order, lowers his NVGs (night vision goggles), and moves forward.

A note about these NVGs: These are the coolest ones I have seen in a movie. The display provides detailed tactical information such as direction and audio waves without being overbearing for the user. The blueish hue gives an eerie feeling that works very well with the movie vibe.

Sergeant Davis proceeds into an underpass where he comes across a group of civilians. All of them are dead with a strange whitening of their eyes. As he examines a body, a tinkering sound distracts him, leading him to investigate deeper into the recess. Sergeant Davis enters a room, likely a maintenance room for the highway above, where he encounters a whimsical disturbance on his NVGs. Lifting his NVGs, Davis sees nothing but darkness in the empty space. He lowers them to see the disruption has taken a humanoid form and rushes at him. In a flash of ghostly light, the form flows through Sergeant Davis, killing him instantly. As Davis' body lays there and the radio calls out to him, we see the NVGs are lying on the ground pointing, pointing at Davis. The figure appears, standing over him, then cut to black.

Spectral is a science fiction ghost story where the line between good and evil is as blurry as the specters themselves. Set amid a civil war called the Moldovan War, the US military calls upon Dr. Mark Clyne, the creator of the goggles, to review the footage from the field. After reviewing the footage, Dr. Clyne determines that the humanoid phantoms in the recordings are not interference but rather something else. It is theorized that this is some advanced camouflage used by enemy combatants but before reporting that, Dr. Clyne is set into the field to investigate further.

Using a souped-up hyperspectral camera, the team goes into the field where they encounter all the previous team members dead, except one. This survivor is found alive, hiding under an upside-down bathtub made of iron. At that point, the team is ambushed by the ghosts, but in their defeat, the survivors learn that iron is the salt in other ghost movies.

After holing up in an abandoned factory serving as a refugee home for children, they learn more about how iron offers protection. An enormous iron shavings ring around the factory that serves as a moat to keep the ghosts out. The surviving team creates improvised weapons using iron shavings and fillings then heads out to a rendezvous point. Barely escaping the battle, those who make it are extracted to a consolidation point. Overnight, Dr. Clyne creates several pulse fire weapons that break down the ghosts. The following morning, they set out a counter-attack against a power plant that is the source of the ghosts.

The team arrives at the power plant, and the mother of all spectral battles begins. Armed with their new pulse weapons, the military detachment gains the upper hand but learns that the ghosts can reconsolidate. When they reconsolidate, they form into the Final Boss, and it is some sight to behold!

While the battle above ensues, Dr. Clyne and Fran Madison, a CIA officer assigned to the US military unit, discover the true horror of this movie. Inside the power plant, they discover a weapons research laboratory where the ghosts aren't really ghosts at all. Instead, test subjects have been 3D scanned at a molecular level. They are reimigaed as the apparitions to serve as the soldiers of an unbeatable army. Dr, Clyne shuts down the system, thus causing the apparitions above to dissipate and end the battle.

Dr. Clyne and Madison then proceed to explore further down into the research laboratory. In the depths of the power plant, they discover a room where they find the remains of the test subjects. These people are nothing more than their brains and periphery nervous systems, laid out in life-support units. Shocked, Madison muses that the test subjects are still alive. Dr. Clyne responds that he believes they are neither alive nor dead but trapped in an artificial purgatory. To prevent the system from being restarted, he unplugs the remnants of these people, thus killing them and giving them peace from the pain of their existence.

Overall, I find the effects in the movie are good, especially the ghosts. The acting in the film is fine for what it is. There are some silly lines, and the actors are a little wooden in certain stereotypes but nothing that makes it unbearable. The score has a spooky vibe that works well with the gray and dark coloring of the movie. I feel that the technology in the movie ranged from great (the goggles) to being a bit to advanced for the current times (the ghosts and the pulse weapons) but not so far-fetched that it induced serious eye-rolling and verbal outbursts of "oh my God!"

In conclusion, I feel that Spectral does a good job examining how military research will often blow past all ethical lines for the sake of creating better weapon systems. The underlying human cost of this research, whether that cost is the one Dr. Clyne refers to in the beginning when he is discussing Einstein and the Manhattan Project or in the big reveal at the end where people are literally stripped of their physical humanity, is often greater than most are willing to accept. It's a dark and gritty film, doing a good job showing the horrors of urban warfare. It also clearly shows the depravity of weapon research, whether by the movie's despotic government or the supposed good guys such as the United States government.

Warp 7 on the SciFi Drive!


Next Review: Battleship (2012)

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