Though audiences might be a little put off by Spectral’s troubled production history – originally intended as a theatrical release but ultimately sold to Netflix – this moderately entertaining debut from writer-director Nic Mathieu gets enough right to compensate for a hokey CGI villain and some over-familiar ideas.
DARPA scientist Dr. Mark Clyne (James Badge Dale) finds himself sent over to Moldova, where the US military has begun encountering a seemingly paranormal phenomenon; an invisible enemy combatant capable of killing anyone with a single touch. While at first Clyne is asked to look into a way to identify apparently cloaked insurgents, it soon enough becomes clear that there’s something otherworldly at play.
There’s no dancing around the fact that it’s not exactly the most fresh or original premise, and on the face of it touting an invisible enemy just feels like a lazy way to slash the budget. Where Spectral succeeds, then, is with its unexpected devotion to characters, and the fine actors who play them.
Dale, an under-appreciated character actor who has carved out memorable roles in movies such as The Departed and Flight, is a compelling lead even if his lack of A-list status is probably the main reason the movie ended up on Netflix. He’s likable and believable, and has the firm likes of Emily Mortimer and Bruce Greenwood to work opposite.
However, things definitely take a turn for the worse when the enemy’s ghost-like form is revealed; an exceedingly generic white mass of humanoid CGI that jars harshly with the impressive production design and cinematography. These effects, apparently rendered by Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop, would barely look out of place in something produced by The Asylum.
Still, there’s palpable fear in the air because these creatures can kill so quickly and indiscriminately, and Mathieu does a solid job turning the screws as the heroes get boxed into a tight corner. Audiences are likely to be split on the final set of revelations, but to derisively call its finale “absurd” is basically to miss the entire point.
It’s easy to see why Universal ditched Spectral from theatrical release, but at the same time, it’s easy to see why Netflix gobbled it up, adding yet another entertaining if far-from-great entry to their growing mid-budget sci-fi cachet.
Spectral is available now on Netflix