2016 is coming to an end, which means I'm spending my free time assembling a traditional end of year list, on top of my yearly top 250 update. Those things take time, which is why I tend to prefer films that are a little lower on my priority list, in an effort not to interfere with the work I've already done. And so I turned to Spectral, a decent enough looking Netflix Original that seemed like a fun way to pass the time. Turns out it's a pretty awesome genre flick, the kind that only comes around every two years or so. Oh well ...
Netflix has been pretty busy building a solid library of Originals. So far they've failed to produce any stand-out films, but even their weakest entries have managed to reach at least some basic level of quality. So far I've enjoyed Netflix' support of smaller genre films, which has yielded some interesting projects (like I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House), but they never reached the point where I was intrigued enough to dedicate a full review to their films. Spectral changed that.
Mind you, this is a pure-blooded genre flick. Don't go in expecting some kind of elaborate plot or a well-developed squad of characters, because you'll be left behind empty-handed. Mathieu aims for sci-fi grit and explosive action and that's pretty much what you'll get out of Spectral. It's the kind of film 30-something year olds will reminisce about 20 years from now, in the same vain my generation is swooning over simple genre fare from the 80s. It isn't the classiest of cinema, but it's damn great fun nonetheless.
The plot revolves around a war zone in Moldavia, where soldiers, civilians and rebels alike are being murdered by some unidentified entities. A genius scientist (Clyne) is summoned to uncover the true identity of the enemy, but his squad is annihilated and Clyne, together with a just couple of survivors, finds himself alone in a deserted, foreign city with an army of killer entities on the loose. Shakespeare it is not, but the plot provides all the necessary hooks for an explosive sci-fi spectacle.
I'm not quite sure how much money Mathieu had to his disposal, but Spectral doesn't look cheap at all. The CG is way better than your average B-film, the camera work is elaborate and immersive and the settings are pretty detailed. The war-torn city looks nothing less than impressive and the colossal labs and industrial scifi designs give the film a raw and brutal edge. Add a muted color palette with lots of green/blues and you get a pretty fine-looking sci-fi flick.
The soundtrack is a much more generic affair, with little or no memorable pieces of music. It's mostly functional background noise that simply fills the gaps between conversations and sound effects. Score-wise that's pretty much all you can expect from a pure genre film, even so a slightly more outspoken selection of background music wouldn't have hurt the film. As it is now, the music is pretty bland, but chances are you'll hardly notice.
The same goes for the actors. James Badge Dale and Emily Mortimer aren't bad considering what little they had to work with, but most characters here are pretty generic and apart from a pretty nasty kill halfway through there isn't much room for bonding or actually caring about the fate of the cast. Most of them are simply cannon fodder anyway. Some people will consider this a negative, I see it as a necessary evil to allow for more dedicated sci-fi/action entertainment.
Spectral isn't all that original. It starts off with a serious dash of Black Hawk Down, gradually adds layers of Terminator Salvation and finishes off with an extra dose of Eden Log. Add to that a structure that would translate perfectly well to an FPS game (the Metro franchise came to mind) and you get a pretty simple film that's clearly more about execution and fan service than it is about creativity and originality. But that's exactly what good genre cinema is supposed to be.
Spectral isn't the blow-out hit Netflix needs to convert the masses, nor is it the classy arthouse hit that it needs to attract a more hardcore film fan audience. But it is a stellar genre film that hits all the right notes and it is a breath of fresh air amidst 5 or 6 years of failed sci-fi revivals. If you're looking for a sci-fi actioner that aims to deliver the goods rather than tries to tick all the necessary "good film" boxes, Spectral is one of the easiest and fairest films to recommend.