Movies · Reviews · Streaming Guides

Spectral Finds Action and Thrills as Soldiers Fight the Ghosts of War

By  · Published on December 9th, 2016

A new Netflix Original delivers a ghost story behind enemy lines.

Netflix has been making strides in the area of original movie content with a mix of films produced in-house (The Do-Over) and ones they’ve picked up as sole distributor (Barry). One of the latter kind hit the streaming service today, and it’s not only a foray into the action/horror genre – it’s also a fun one.

A soldier in an Eastern European conflict finds himself cut off from his team before entering a crumbling house for shelter. His high-tech goggles reveal a wispy shape forming in front of him, and before he can identify it the shape rushes him and kills him instantly. The military brings in a scientist named Clyne (James Badge Dale), the man who created the goggles, in the hope that he can explain what it is and how it’s leaving victims burned on the outside but frozen within. He heads into the field with a squad headed up by Capt. Sessions (Max Martini) and discovers that the mysterious, ghostly forms appear to be human and that they number in the hundreds.

Spectral is far heavier on the action elements than the horror/sci-fi, but happily all of it works well to create an entertaining hybrid fueled by charismatic actors (typically relegated to supporting status), strong CG work, and some solidly exciting combat sequences.

The specters are smoky forms early on but soon show a far more ghostly and ghastly presence the closer we get to them, but the horror is kept to a minimum. Instead the focus is on the action, and director Nic Mathieu delivers a sharply-shot and thrilling action film for his feature debut. Military hardware, big and small, comes into play with sequences that recall the likes of Behind Enemy Lines in their style and look.

The script – the result of four writers – keeps things simple and streamlined while still allowing time to get into the nitty-gritty of insurgencies and particle physics. Obvious inspirations run the gamut from the likes of Black Hawk Down, Edge of Tomorrow, and Aliens, with James Cameron’s film in particular being the clear template for a scene where the squad is slaughtered and only Clyne has the wherewithal to yell “Get your men out!” (There’s even a Newt here!) Nods to other films don’t lessen Spectral’s effect though as the reveal and execution deliver enough originality to keep things fresh.

Two of the leads also offer fresh spins on the norm with Clyne and a CIA agent avoiding cliche. Clyne is far from an action hero, and while he gets physical his contributions are heavier on the side of thought and learning. The agent meanwhile never quite goes the direction every CIA agent in the history of action movies has gone, and that’s a minor victory in itself.

Dale and Martini reunite after collaborating on Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, and while Martini sticks with his eternally convincing hard-ass military guy it’s great seeing Dale shift into the role of a man more accustomed to using his brain than his fists. Both do good work here, and they’re joined by the equally solid Bruce Greenwood, Emily Mortimer, and Clayne Crawford.

The film centers its action in the destroyed aftermath of a war zone, and in some small way it gives voice to those who suffer most – the people who live there. The “ghosts of war” are floated as an explanation for the specters with the idea that the horror of war has introduced something supernatural into the field, and it’s an intriguing concept brought to life.

Spectral is a fun Christmas gift for action fans who appreciate a bit of horror/sci-fi among the gunfire.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.