If I told you that there was a movie out there about a group of soldiers in Eastern Europe teamed up with a plucky scientist against a horde of ghosts you would probably think it was either a really stupid idea or the kind of bonkers idea that makes for some truly entertaining popcorn fair. Unfortunately, Spectral is not the latter.
James Badge Dale plays as Dr. Scientist. Okay, his name is Dr. Mark Clyne but that doesn’t matter because you’ll be forgetting his name as soon as you hear it. Mark is a scientist who works for DARPA and is disillusioned by the fact that all of his inventions, gasp, are going to be weaponized. You would think a guy working for, you know, DARPA would be accustomed to such things but hey he can’t be a genius inventor and self aware.
Dr. Scientist is sent to Moldova to investigate why soldiers are being mysteriously frozen to death after seeing apparitions on a special pair of Spectral (Hey! That’s the title!) goggles that Dr. Scientist created. He’s sent in with a team and a special science light thing he’s created to see if they can spot whatever this mysterious force is while also fending off the current insurgents. The team inevitably spots the “apparitions” (because nobody in this movie has apparently heard of a ghost or is willing to actually use the word) and are swiftly attacked with most of their members killed. Long story short, Dr. Scientist does some science and creates a special light gun that kills the gho…I mean apparitions in their tracks. Whatever, you get the point.
Spectral is not a “bad” movie per se. It’s not good either. What it is, plain and simple, is bland. Now, a lot of this owes to the fact that the script is basically Aliens where instead there are ghosts. But a lot of it is also built around the fact that the characters have no personality at all and there is no real conflict between characters. Our main character, for example, is clearly a pacifist who wants no part in the actual warfare part of his job. And yet, when a soldier mocks him saying that he’s only a tourist if he’s not carrying an assault rifle he all too quickly offers to carry one. From then it’s a moot point. There’s no culture clash at all.
There’s no point in learning the names of any of the soldiers, either. That’s either because they get killed as soon as they are introduced or they simply have no real personality because the movie is so bogged down with the present situation that no real time is given for us getting to know them. There are no character moments to give us an idea of who these people are. For a movie that is so desperate to riff off Aliens it’s amazing that they at didn’t at least take a page out of the Bill Paxton school of comic relief (of which there is none in this movie).
Let’s compare Spectral with a movie that clearly influenced it, Live Die Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow. In Edge of Tomorrow Tom Cruise’s main character is clearly defined. He is a coward and will do anything to get out of active combat. We see him go through a clear and concise character arc in which he goes from coward to he with whom you do not screw on the battlefield. His fellow soldiers have character moments that endear them to the audience. We get to know them bit by bit as the film progresses. The secondary protagonist Rita is given her own story arc. The action isn’t generic because the film uses its premise to its fullest potential. Spectral does none of these things.
The film’s design is pretty awful as well. Weta Workshop is one of the gold standards in the film industry. They have an incredible team and they frequently knock out masterpiece after masterpiece of design…but either they dropped the ball here or they were instructed to create characters and props that were devoid of imagination. The ghosts look like every other generic gray blob antagonist you’ve seen in every blockbuster over the last 5+ years. The sci-fi weaponry looks marginally okay but nothing really stands out. The spectral gun that’s created has no personality. It doesn’t look cool. Think about the proton pack from the original Ghostbusters. You want a proton pack. I want a proton pack. Everyone wants a proton pack because the proton pack is cool and has personality. This things has none of that.
At the end of the day Spectral commits almost every cardinal sin of modern action and sci-fi films. It rests on the laurels of a decent idea and does nothing to actually use that premise to its full potential. It’s lazy, it’s bland, it’s poorly designed, and it borrows ideas from movies that are so much better. Spectral is a film with the personality and flair of a dead moth. It’s not scary, it’s not inventive, and it’s just not any fun.