Back in June 2016, the news broke that distribution company Universal Pictures had pulled Spectral, a science-fiction thriller with a strong video-game flavor, from its fall release roster. Spectral’s production company, Legendary, had also handled the game-to-film adaptation of Warcraft, and industry insiders speculated that Warcraft’s North American box-office failure might have made Universal leery. Alternately, it might have just limited the budget Universal wanted to devote to another Legendary release. There are a lot of possible factors, some weedier than others, including a 2016 film slate glutted with science fiction and fantasy, and the newness of Legendary’s relationship with Universal, given that the former had just left its longtime distribution deal with Warner Bros.
But watching Spectral raises another likely scenario: Universal honchos may have just decided the film didn’t have the broad appeal to make it in the theatrical market. Spectral, which Netflix picked up in November and rushed to its streaming platform on December 9th, is a mishmash of familiar film tropes, with bits and pieces from Black Hawk Down, Edge of Tomorrow, and especially Aliens. It also feels like a lost segment from the Gears of War video-game franchise, with normal-sized men in place of the game franchise’s steroid-monster soldiers. As with Gears of War, Spectral revolves around a series of travel and battle quests — get this technology to this location, find this missing soldier, get this piece of information, use it to activate the next step. The latter half of the movie, when the action clicks and the stakes are raised, feels like watching someone play a shooter. Watching the former half of the movie, which sets up the story, feels like listening to someone explain the themes of the very same game. How appetizing that sounds is an quick-and-easy test of your potential interest in actually watching Spectral yourself.
First-time feature director Nic Mathieu aims for a gritty, realistic urban feel for Spectral, and once the action starts, he largely gets there, though without the immersive intensity of Black Hawk Down, or the emotional connections Aliens makes with its doomed combatants. The story starts with a special-forces soldier encountering a hostile, ghostlike figure in the ruins of a Moldovan city. DARPA engineer Mark Clyne (James Badge Dale), who designed the goggles that made the anomaly visible to soldiers, is called to Moldova to consult. A failed regime, a rising insurgency, and a looming civil war have all reportedly made the area unstable and dangerous, but in true shooter fashion, Clyne walks into what seems to be a near-deserted city, apart from American soldiers put on edge by the number of military personnel who’ve gone missing. Half an hour of slow-paced character-building and tech talk later, it emerges that the Americans are being killed off by what appear to be ghosts — fast-moving, transparent blue-white energy-figures that ignore conventional weapons and kill with a touch.
Spectral stages this all pretty much exactly like Aliens, building up a group of largely indistinguishable multicultural soldiers, then whittling them down to a few tough, angry survivors. There’s even a wide-eyed, traumatized little survivor-girl who’s a dead ringer for Aliens’ Newt. (To double down on the trope, she has a cute little brother tagging along with her as she becomes the American team’s mascot and informant.) In this case, instead of treacherous company man Burke, there’s a sincere CIA agent named Fran (Emily Mortimer), who’s mostly around to translate. And instead of desperate, angry, painfully human Ripley, there’s Clyne, a competent but bland tech-head whose solution to most things is to swap parts around on his team's cameras or guns, MacGyvering them until they're futuristic enough to solve the latest problem.
For a mainstream supernatural-fantasy war film, Spectral is curiously devoted to rhapsodizing about science, and considering the moral implications of scientific discovery. It’s also appealingly certain that science is the answer to all problems, including what appears to be a supernatural attack. Spectral’s equivalent of Predator’s iconic line “If it bleeds, we can kill it” is Clyne saying “If someone made them, they don’t escape the laws of the world. Nothing does.” Clyne is a strange sort of hero: he’s steady, quiet, and thoughtful, and he makes a good case for the crucial link between science and ethics. But he has no family, no history, no flaws or other meaningful characteristics, and no personal agenda, apart from a roster of things he’s built for the military. He’s a cipher, and he embodies Spectral’s essential shallowness.
Which might not matter as much if the film was strictly an early 2000s video game story, moving from one action scene to another. But too much of the narrative rests on Clyne explaining things and having things explained to him in turn, and on sequences where he builds the next device to launch the next chapter. For all the film’s devotion to scientific rigor, the actual science is pure Hollywood, right down to an “if I just reverse the polarity on this camera…” moment, and a climax that amounts to “flip the right switch at the right time.”
By the end of the movie, the characters are running around with comically gigantic Gears of War guns, in a blowout action scene that finally gets to the thrilling, immersive place Spectral wants to be all along. But for most of its runtime, this is a much smaller, talkier film. The dialogues aren’t smart and challenging enough to rival a heady, ideas-based science-fiction movie like Arrival, and the story isn’t paced well enough to rival action science fiction like Aliens. It’s copycatting the right things, but in the wrong ways. It’s understandable that Netflix jumped at the chance to grab what was intended as a big-screen, large-scale thriller. But Spectral winds up feeling like a much smaller film, like something that was intended for a casual streaming experience all along.