You know what’s incredible? When you can watch a movie that rocks your foundation, when a film provides you an experience that you’ll never forget and it inspires you along your quest of life. Or how about the flip side: those days where you watch a film so terrible it shakes your core? When we watch a movie, we’re spending time with an art form and it’s time we won’t get back, and let’s be honest: they won’t all be huge winners or gigantic flops.
The glorious cinematic middle ground is where a ton of films find their home. If you’re like me — and if so, then shut up, stop being my clone — sometimes all you want is the middle. You just want be entertained and not bored to tears. And sometimes, on those evenings where the middle will suit you just fine, you’ll find a movie like Spectral, a film that plants its feet in the ground and waves at you to come have a good time for two hours. No fine print details included, just a good time.
Spectral takes place in the not-too-distant future of war, and the business of war is pretty profitable. An engineer named Clyne (James Badge Dale) tries to make all of his inventions count as helpful instead of harmful in these trying times, and he’s often met with resistance. He’s suddenly whisked half a world away when a platoon finds something disturbing with the goggles he’s created: they can see a hyperspectral image that appears human and can kill upon touch. Unseen by the naked eye, this weird phenomenon has killed numerous soldiers, and has a whole squad trapped in a small war zone in Masarov, somewhere in Romania. The army doesn’t know what to think of it, and an agent named Madison (Emily Mortimer) is convinced that it’s just insurgents in an advanced form of camouflage. Clyne joins Madison and a team of grunts on the rescue mission to see firsthand what this could be, and how it can be stopped from killing more soldiers and anyone else who gets in its path.
Make no mistake, the biggest appeal of Spectral is the mystery behind the “aratare” which is Romanian for ghost or apparition. This screenplay was written by George Nolfi, who can go hot (The Bourne Ultimatum, or at least part of it) or cold (Ocean’s Twelve) like a flip of a switch. Even with his blueprint, the script somehow feels like it thinks it’s more than what it really is. I wonder if anyone had the heart to tell him that half his screenplay was Aliens. I’m not trying to be a jerk or brash about it, I’m being serious: the first half of Spectral is pretty much Aliens beat by beat. A team of soldiers (instead of a colony) loses radio contact and assumes to be in trouble, another team gets sent in to find them, there’s arguments on what this could be or what could’ve caused it, said team is accompanied by an outsider that might be an expert on something, they go in and it’s a massacre. Hell, even the kid equation is thrown in there. Did Nolfi not notice this? Granted, his script was based on the story from the director, Nic Mathieu (making his debut here) but there could’ve been a few elements thrown in to not make it feel like half Aliens, half “oh hey I’ve seen that in other sci-fi films!”
Even with that going against it, Spectral still channels the the positive vibes of the middle ground. It does something that’s not really easy to pull off. Think about it for a quick second: if a movie is amazing, you’re going to remember it, and if a movie sucks hard you’re still going to remember it. You’ll be talking about it, and telling your friends and family and pets to see this movie immediately or to avoid it like the plague; both sides of the extreme make an impact. So a movie in the middle ground, a movie that knows it won’t be a game changer, has to work just as hard, maybe even harder, for you to be invested in the time you’ve given it — to come out of it all saying, “you know what, that was pretty damn entertaining.” In that fashion, Spectral works its ass off and comes out victorious.
First off, those aratares: I freaking love them. Raise your hand if you’re like me and you’ve seen Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and consider it one of the absolute all-time greats? OK, so all eight of you, remember those phantoms? Remember how badass and downright creepy they were? They were giant, menacing, and seemingly unstoppable. Spectral takes that concept, shrinks it down to adult size, and makes them faster and even more ghoulish — and they look spectacular. One of the biggest things going for Spectral, in addition to providing baddies that made the teenager in me squee in delight, is that it pulls off that awesome rabbit trick that makes the budget look ginormous when you know it couldn’t have been that vast. This is smart, compact filmmaking and because the movie thinks on its feet like the Clyne character, it provides amazing effects. I’m not kidding here, everything from the environments, to the weapons such as hyperspectral gun, to the aratares themselves are such a treat to behold.
Spectral also finds a weird victory with its cast. I say it’s weird because, much like Nolfi’s script, the characterization as a whole is pretty uninspired. We don’t really know much about anybody here, or what makes them tick. As far as the script’s concerned, these are just people in this situation or that situation and they have to figure it out. I can imagine Mathieu reading this and taking it like a challenge: “You’ve just given me this to work with, eh? OK, then. Game on.” Spectral takes its mundane foundation and like an 80’s Macgyver, it assembles enjoyment with some genuine value. What’s that, we don’t have real fleshed out characters? No problem! Let’s cast some charmers like Dale and Mortimer, along with solid ensembles like Max Martini, Clayne Crawford and Bruce Greenwood, and treat them like the professionals they are. We have a story that’s basically Spam instead of actual meat? Pfffft. Let’s take the best elements of style-over-substance and use it to our advantage. Throw in some great baddies, strong shot compositions, a few moments that are truly badass and we’ve got a movie! And you know what? Just like some of the greats, let’s throw in some stellar editing (provided by It editor Jason Ballantine) to give it a no-nonsense feel (and that’s an understatement; Spectral is completely no-nonsense).
Now the one thing that can’t be knocked about the script is the aspect that really brought us here in the first place: the mysterious origin of the aratares. No spoilers here (or ever, not with my work) but it’s pretty inventive, and thanks to the flair added by everyone else, it’s satisfying. But without a doubt, if this hadn’t been handled by a director hungry to provide a good time, an engrossing cast and crew of considerable talent, the road to the origin would’ve been hell. They all knew Spectral didn’t have to be a game changer, it just had to entertain. And it does so with gusto. That’s why, in the cinematic world of the middle ground, it’s a definite must-see. Kick you feet up and enjoy.