War drives technological advance. The easiest way to beat the enemy is to have bigger guns than they possess. The most conclusive victories are over those who have inferior weaponry, the greatest strategic errors occur when forces are given substandard or poorly serviced equipment. But what technology can help when the enemy is impervious to bullets, is not even human?
In his DARPA lab, Doctor Mark Clyne (World War Z‘s James Badge Dale) is working on the development of a powerful new laser technology, the impressive test results of which lead to questions of weapons applications which had not been his intention, and nor does Doctor Clyne wish to encourage that line of research. When asked by an executive what the effect of the device on human flesh might be, he asks whether any of those present would like to volunteer as subjects to find out.
Preferring that his research be used for defence, he quotes Einstein: “I don’t know what weapons will be used to fight World War Three but I’m pretty sure we’ll fight World War Four with sticks and stones.” But one of creations is already in the battlefield, hyperspectral imaging goggles, deployed in the Moldovan War, and they have picked up something strange on which he is required to consult.
Flown to the warzone, he is met by General Orland (Star Trek Into Darkness‘ Bruce Greenwood) and CIA officer Fran Madison (The Newsroom‘s Emily Mortimer), Clyne is shown footage of the anomaly which defies immediate explanation but has killed several times, not only the sergeant who became separated from his unit but others around the city, their internal organs frozen but their skin burned and corroded.
Outfitting an armoured personnel carrier with a more powerful hyperspectral camera, Clyne volunteers to go out with the squad to try and track the anomalies in order to understand them. Madison is concerned that it is some form of active camouflage or cloaking technology, dismissing the local belief that it is something “as nightmarish as the ghosts of war,” but when they find what they are looking for they take heavy casualties and their vehicle is disabled in insurgent territory, and nor are they able to call for evacuation.
The first dramatic work in any form from former commercial director Nic Mathieu, it is technically accomplished and atmospheric but the script, credited to Ian Fried, Real Steel‘s John Gatins and The Adjustment Bureau‘s George Nolfi from Fried’s story, is a helpless mess which has too many fingerprints on it and a diminishing pool of ideas which become increasingly ridiculous as it progresses.
Part modern war movie, part horror, part science fiction, the influence of James Cameron’s Aliens dominates the film: a civilian expert whose advice is ignored is sent to the front line, the representative of authority who insists they are in control of the situation, the mobile operations unit which tracks the soldiers in the field via their head cameras, the venture into enemy territory where it all unravels, the planned method of extraction explosively cut off, making friends with the abandoned survivor kids, the fetishisation of the hardware.
The committed cast, which includes Lethal Weapon‘s Clayne Crawford as Sergeant Toll, Pacific Rim‘s Max Martini as Major Sessions, From Dusk Till Dawn‘s Gonzalo Menendez as Captain Cabrera, Ascension‘s Ryan Robbins as Sergeant Comstock and Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal‘s Dylan Smith as Talbot, are given no development beyond the initial back-at-the-base fight for dominance, a poor imitation of the similar scene aboard the USS Sulaco as it approached LV-426.
Where Spectral falls apart is when it abandons the hard edge which carried it through the early scenes in favour of technobabble, Clyne’s battlefield repurposing of his equipment (“By reversing the polarity of some of the components, I might be able to turn it from a camera into a searchlight.”) only the first stage of the credulity-stretching final act where the squad fabricate custom built high energy plasma weapons to uniform specifications from salvaged materiel dropped into a refugee shelter.
With production having taken place in Hungary in the summer of 2014 for an anticipated cinema release earlier this year, this was understandably abandoned in favour of a distribution arrangement with Netflix, presumably in recognition of the fact that the finished product simply did not warrant cinematic release, a disappointment for those involved and the viewer. There is skill and talent here which was not matched by the efforts of the writers, and in the battle of the box office a strong script is the best weapon there is.