From the chilling stories of MR James to cinematic classics like The Haunting (1963) and the laughable TV nonsense of documentary series Paranormal Witness (seriously the reconstructions in that show are hilarious), the ghost story has established itself a well-worn trope across various mediums across many decades.
While the ghost story is often a favourite of the horror and sometimes comedy genres (I think Ghostbusters needs no introduction) it’s very strange to see it mixed with the military action film.
This overlong and contrived introduction helpfully leads me to the spooky sci-fi action film Spectral, in which we see what Black Hawk Down would look like if it had less Somali militiamen and more ghosts, resulting in something quite daft indeed.
Weapons developer Dr Mark Clyne is sent to war-torn Moldova to investigate a series of ghostly apparitions that are invisible to the naked eye yet deadly to the touch having killed several US soldiers. Clyne and his military colleagues soon find themselves facing off against a seemingly unstoppable enemy which threatens to spread beyond the borders of this war-ravaged land and engulf the entire world unless a way to stop them can be found.
The cast is full of fine actors like James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer and Bruce Greenwood all giving fine performances and while they do try their best, all the characters kind of conform to your usual stock military action film characters.
Dale’s Dr Clyne is the classic “I know how to beat the (insert unstoppable enemy) with science” character; Mortimer (who really deserves better material than this) is the government agency sceptic who thinks the enemy is something that it clearly isn’t and that we need what they have.
Greenwood is given the most clichéd role as the stereotypical gruff army general who even gives a motivational “going into battle” speech that we’ve seen hundreds of times, all he needed was to say he was “cancelling the apocalypse so we could celebrate our Independence Day” and the cliché would have been fully complete.
Even the squad of soldiers who we spend much of our time with are essentially a “greatest hits” mixture of all the sci-fi films in which soldiers come up against an enemy that they can’t just blow up, all that was missing was the one terrified trooper that screams “game over man”.
However, while the talented cast (who frankly can do better than this film) is reduced to playing stock characters, the villains of the film, (who I’ll refer to as “ghosts” for convenience) more than make up for this by being incredibly mysterious and frankly terrifying. Moving at great speeds and able to kill dozens of men in seconds, these “ghosts” feel unstoppable with the soldier’s guns being about as effective against them as a tennis ball against a tank.
While the ghosts don’t exactly have the most original appearance, essentially being blue see through people, what makes them work is you initially have no idea what they hell they really are, with the constant guessing as to whether they are genuinely supernatural entities that have risen to rid the world of humanity keeping the fear factor at an effective level.
Unfortunately, the second half of the film pretty much ruins the mystery of these cool villains by revealing them to be the result of the usual scientific balls up and that they aren’t actually a supernatural foe. This reveal is not helped by the fact that our heroes quickly manage find a way to kill them by developing oversized superguns that seem to have been stolen from the latest incarnation of Doom.
The action scenes in the film might not be the best ever committed to film, but they do the job well enough to keep you entertained. The best moment is easily the first encounter with the ghosts, where a squad of about 20 or so elite heavily armed Special Forces soldiers are wiped out in seconds by a single ghost who goes through them like a knife through butter. It’s a brilliantly tense sequence that is definitely the high point of the film, with the final action scene essentially being a big CGI ghost fest that while pretty fun to watch, is lacking the same kind of urgency as the earlier scene.
On a visual level the film looks pretty good all things considered, with the war ravaged streets and rusty old factories looking suitably grim and dreary, with the cinematography being very well done for the most part, even if it does devolve into unnecessary shaky cam at times.
The digital effects by Weta Digital (the team behind the Lord of the Rings and recent Planet of the Apes films) are for the most part pretty good, with the ghosts, although simplistic in design, being well integrated into the live action environment with their interactions the characters feeling realistic enough. Although, there are moments, like in the final battle sequence, when the CGI is perhaps used too heavily, often to the point that the film starts to resemble a PS4 game.
Let’s be honest here, this film is not great by any stretch of the imagination and it’s almost certainly not going to be receiving any nominations this awards season or any award season anytime soon.
What we have here is a film that was made and essentially shelved after completion; its original release to theatres by Universal in late summer 2016 was quietly cancelled with the film eventually released by Netflix without much fanfare.
However, while Spectral is not a great film, it is the kind of film that is a perfect way to waste time on a boring Sunday afternoon. Check it out if you’re curious.
Graeme Robertson | [rating=3]
Sci-fi, action, thriller | 12 | Available Now | Netflix UK & Ireland | Dir. Nic Mathieu | James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Greenwood