Friday, December 30, 2016

On Netflix: SPECTRAL (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Nic Mathieu. Written by George Nolfi. Cast: James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Greenwood, Max Martini, Cory Hardrict, Clayne Crawford, Gonzalo Menendez, Ursula Parker, Stephen Root, Aaron Serban, Dylan Smith, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Ryan Robbins, Jimmy Akingbola. (Unrated, 108 mins)

After over a year on the shelf, SPECTRAL, a $70 million Legendary Pictures-produced sci-fi horror actioner, was set to open in theaters nationwide in August 2016. That never happened, as it was abruptly yanked from the release schedule a few weeks earlier after Legendary's WARCRAFT bombed and distributor Universal grew skittish about having another expensive summer flop on its hands, even though WARCRAFT was a hit everywhere in the world but America. They shopped SPECTRAL around to other studios and found a taker in Netflix, who are now streaming it as a "Netflix Original." It's not a great movie by any means, and it likely would've ended up tanking in theaters just as Universal feared, especially being a summer movie lacking any big name draws in front of or behind the camera. In that respect, Netflix seems like perfect platform for SPECTRAL, where it's free from box office expectations and can earn the minor cult following it's inevitably going to get. Military-contracted science researcher Dr. Mark Clyne (James Badge Dale, a solid supporting actor, but c'mon, who puts a $70 million summer sci-fi action movie on the shoulders of James Badge Dale?) is summoned to Moldova to help a tactical unit that's been using high-tech "spectral" combat helmet cam goggles that he designed. He's informed by Gen. Orland (Bruce Greenwood) and CIA operative Fran Madison (Emily Mortimer) that the cameras have been picking up images of apparitions--termed "hyperspectral anomalies"--who have attacked and killed several members of the Delta Force team, led by Sgt. Sessions (Max Martini, Dale's 13 HOURS co-star). Orland and Madison believe it's a cloaking device being used by enemy insurgents, which Clyne dismisses since the US hasn't even come close to achieving that capability. Orland orders Clyne and Madison to accompany Sessions and what's left of the Delta team to find another unit that went missing the day before, obviously taken out by the "anomalies," ghostly specters that can only be seen through the combat goggles or the light from a hyperspectral camera that Clyne creates on the fly when most of the goggles are destroyed in a paranormal skirmish.

Written by George Nolfi (a good buddy of Matt Damon's who co-scripted OCEAN'S TWELVE and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, and wrote and directed THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU) and directed by feature-debuting TV commercial vet Nic Mathieu, SPECTRAL dives pretty deep into hard sci-fi with Clyne's theories on the origin of the anomalies. They're impervious to weapons and can travel through any surface except iron and ceramic, which leads Clyne to believe they're man-made via bosons hovering near absolute zero with a cooled gas of extremely low density and known as the Bose-Einstein Condensate, which is not something Joe Multiplex normally expects to be name-dropped in a big-budget summer action movie. SPECTRAL has some great ideas, but while Nolfi's script talks a big game, it doesn't really have the brains to back it up. The scene where Clyne explains everything to Madison and the soldiers turns into a momentum-killing monologue because Dale has a difficult time selling it when he just keeps anxiously repeating "ceramic" and "condensate." He doesn't sound like he knows what he's talking about, probably because Nolfi doesn't either and should probably be sharing the screenplay credit with Wikipedia. Nevertheless, SPECTRAL is very well-made, and with location shooting in Hungary, Slovakia, and Israel, it definitely looks like a "bigger" movie than one usually associates with "Netflix Original." It also boasts some impressive visual effects and refreshingly coherent combat sequences, and with its stark, ominous Eastern European setting (most of this was shot in Bucharest) and some lighting and cinematography techniques, it would appear that SPECTRAL owes a stylistic debt to Michael Mann's 1983 cult classic THE KEEP. The biggest structural influence is obviously James Cameron's 1986 masterpiece ALIENS, right down to the discovery of a little Moldovan orphan girl (Ursula Parker, one of the daughters on LOUIE) who isn't named "Newt," but might as well be (all that's missing is a scheming Paul Reiser to sabotage the mission). Feeling like BLACK HAWK DOWN retooled as a John Ringo or David Weber military sci-fi novel published by Baen Books, SPECTRAL isn't nearly as smart as it thinks it is, but its ambition is appreciated. It delivers if you're looking for action, special effects, and atmosphere, so this really is custom-made for Netflix streaming.

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