STRANGE SIGHTINGS IN THE NETFLIX BASEMENT
In this series every week, I will search out strange worlds and new life forms in the Netflix Basement and try to find the weirdest, most wonderful, and somewhat less than wonderful movies.
Spectral is a Netflix Original Movie that promises “When an otherworldly force wreaks havoc…” When you hear the words “otherworldly” and “wreaking havoc”, you’re thinking ghosts, spirits or poltergeists, right? Is this the non-comedy Ghostbusters rip-off with dull actors that I didn’t know I wanted, but I secretly always needed to see? The filmmakers ignore the fact that ghosts are supposed to be scary, and instead seem to be making a generic Sci-Fi Euro Action movie. Any random episode of Goosebumps is scarier than this movie. Either version of Ghostbusters is scarier than this movie. I’ve seen Disney talking animal movies with more moments of bloodcurdling horror than this movie. And as far as generic Sci-Fi Euro Action movies go, this movie is boring even by the low standards of the genre.
Spectral takes place in a post-apocalypse future. For some reason, American soldiers are fighting unnamed enemies in an unnamed European hellscape that resembles Stalingrad if soccer hooligans descended on the city immediately after the war and broke some more stuff. We see multiple helicopter shots over a smoldering city and they have several different burned out buildings for locations. So the visuals are impressive in scope, when we can actually see them. There are scenes with helicopters, tanks, war robots, and house to house fighting, all of it rendered dull and lifeless because of the washed out color palette and pitch-black conditions the movie was shot in. Apparently, their budget didn’t extend to renting lights.
As the movie starts, there is a generic soldier investigating something. He is in a dark basement without lights. He utters the immortal line, “What the hell-?” right before he gets ghost-zapped by a blurry white light. “What the hell-?” is a line only spoken in bad horror movies and never in real life. I have never thought to utter “What the hell is that?” to myself right before I get ghost-zapped or monster-assaulted. But I did utter this 20 or 30 times: “What the hell is going on in this movie? Because I can’t see what’s happening.”
Then we meet our protagonist, a weeny scientist named Clyne played by James Badge Dale. I am not familiar with his work but this movie doesn’t allow him to show any discernible personality, charisma, or emotions. I admire movies that feature protagonists in action movies that are weeny scientists, so I’m okay with this.
Clyne pulls up to a building with a helpful sign that says “Building” and with an A restaurant rating in the window. So I’m guessing they have primo tuna salad sandwiches in the commissary.
Hey, it’s the always enjoyable Stephen Root. Stephen Root delivers some exposition and tells Clyne to get his science-knowing butt to Moldova. Then Stephen Root exits the movie. You know what would’ve made Spectral 100 times better? Stephen Root as a weeny scientist bustin’ ghosts, but with some comedic sarcasm and wisecracks.
We get the helpful title card “Moldova – Eastern Europe” because the film thinks we’re stupid. As opposed to the Moldova in South America? Or the one in Antarctica? We already know it’s Eastern Europe because that’s where ALL generic Euro Sci-Fi Action films are made. Where ruins and extras are cheap and sizable tax breaks pay for the production catering.
Then Bruce Greenwood and Emily Mortimer show up to deliver so much exposition. They think by hiring good actors it will make the long techno-babble monologues sound more interesting. It doesn’t work. Emily Mortimer plays a CIA Agent, who works in an empty storage unit, inside an empty prison, inside an empty warehouse helpfully titled “SCIF – Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.” SCIF?!?! If you’re going to make a tortured acronym using “compartmented,” shouldn’t the word mean something? Emily Mortimer is the second cast member from Pink Panther 2 that I’ve seen in the two movies I’ve reviewed so far; I just thought it was an interesting coincidence. I’ll keep an eye out for any cheesy action movies starring John Cleese or Alfred Molina for my next one.
For all these exposition scenes, they are playing coy with what monsters we’re dealing with. They show us blurry photos of lights. Clyne asks Bruce, “You’re not going to fly me all the way out here for (radio) interference. So you want to tell me what you’re thinking?” And Bruce replies, “No, I want you to tell me what you’re thinking.” Clyne retorts, “I don’t know what I’m thinking.” Dammit Bruce, just say it. It’s ghosts. We get it. It’s in the title: Spectral. Then there’s some discussion about cloaking technology. Seriously people, let’s all accept we’re dealing with ghosts and get on with the busting of said Ghosts. Or Wraith Whacking. Or Ghoul Goggling. Or Spook Spanking.
Clyne then meets the team of generic tough-talking Aliens-style Space Marines. There’s lots of mentions of “balls” and stuff like that. The Marines are skeptical of Clyne because he’s a weeny scientist.
So now we are half an hour into the movie and we’re finally ready to get started with ghost busting. We get the first of many “Clearing the Room” scenes. These are common in TV Cop shows. The cops bust into the suspect’s house, guns drawn with dramatic music. They NEVER find anything. But the scenes are an excuse to insert guns and tension into five minutes of people exploring an empty building.
One Marine shouts, “There’s something under the tub.”
“I, 2, 3.” They dramatically flip over the bath tub. But it’s not a ghost. It’s Comstock, a dude from a previous mission. I was kind of hoping a cat would jump out. The marines ask Comstock where his other team members are and he ominously warns them, “They’re all dead. We’re all dead.”
And then we finally see a Spectral. It’s a glowing skeleton thing with ghostly light coming off of it. And then the soldier fires his gun at the incorporeal spirit. Hah. And he is slimed. Sort of. The ghost “attacks” in this movie are just a flash of light and a “poof” sound and the soldier falls over. That’s it. “Poof.” No gore. No slime. We will have no excitement in Spectral. Just “poofs.” All hell breaks loose. A bunch of soldiers are quickly “poofed.” And then these doofuses try to bazooka the Spectral.
So that mission went about as well as you’d expect Gun Toting Marines versus Ghosts would go. 75% casualties from the marines. It’s like LeBron James playing the McKinley Middle School Cougars.
So the surviving marines do more exploring of dark, burnt-out warehouses and, since this movie was not derivative enough, they find some dirty war orphans. Because they haven’t ripped off Aliens in over 10 minutes. At least Mortimer earns her acting paycheck and breaks out some Moldovan to speak with the kids. Then she gets to act motherly and hold the children when anything dangerous happens.
Clyne shows the marines a video of the Spectrals getting stuck in iron. So we’re treated to an A-team gettin’ ready montage where they make a bunch of iron weapons, guns, grenades, and Clyne reverses the polarity of the camera. He says, “I’ve got a better idea. This camera already projects the right wavelength of UV light. If I can turn it inside out, by reversing the polarity of some of the components I might be able to change it from a camera into a searchlight. We’ll be able to see them with our own eyes.”
See, how exciting is THAT? Now they can see the ghosts. Great job nerd, you invented a flashlight. A four foot long flashlight that’s reminiscent of the awesome weapons in Aliens, but instead of firing grenades and and also flame-broiling monsters, it’s just a big ol’ flashlight. “Hey bros, I can totally shine light on things and make them less dark.” Well, actually that would improve the movie. This is the best part, in my opinion, because watching this goof running down the back alleys of burned out Chisinau wielding a giant flashlight is hilarious.
Long after I stopped caring, Clyne figures out what the Spectrals are and how to kill them, which I will not reveal due to its stupidity and pointlessness. So for the Big Battle at the end, there is ANOTHER long A-Team style weapon-building montage. The Marines make a bunch of groovy Spectral Zapping guns and bombs, and there’s a Spectral-fighting robot and they have “cool” anti-ghost armor and helmets. And my question is: Where the hell was all this stuff when the movie was really boring and slow? I would’ve loved some scenes where they try out these new weapons and armor and they name the Robo-dog “Poochy” or “Slimer” or something cute.
I know what you’re going to ask me. Does the movie conclude with a half-hour long blood and tension free battle with lots of stuff blown up real good in pitch-black darkness so you can’t see anything happening? You better believe it.
BOTTOM LINE: Netflix needs content for people to watch so, naturally, they produce their own films. In this case, it’s 90 expensive minutes where mildly ghostly stuff happens and the viewer is not challenged or insulted in any way. I’d say just watch the trailer which has all of the good stuff in the movie boiled down to 90 seconds. I will consider myself thanked.