Most Hollywood actors are constantly fighting against the notion of typecasting, that they’re only good at one type of role. That’s not the case for Max Martini, who seemingly delights in playing one very specific type of character: The Army Badass.
From Saving Private Ryan to The Great Raid to the TV show The Unit to Captain Phillips and even 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, he is almost always playing either a soldier or something tangentially-related (FBI agent, U.S. Marshal, DEA agent).
Martini was also in Pacific Rim as a soldier of sorts, piloting giant robots against kaiju monsters with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. That’s the kind of logline that you have to just buy into before you sit down to watch that movie. Perhaps that’s another typecasting situation that Martini gleefully jumps into because he’s also one of the stars of Netflix’s Spectral, a new science fiction war movie that asks a similar request of the audience before viewing.
Spectral stars James Badge Dale as DARPA researcher Dr. Mark Clyne, who is sent to Moldova where the U.S. is locked in a military conflict in the near future. Mysterious apparition-like entities have started appearing and killing soldiers at will. CIA officer Fran Madison (Emily Mortimer) thinks it’s some kind of advanced form of camouflage, but that doesn’t explain why the enemy can seemingly move through walls and can’t be killed. Working alongside General Orland (Bruce Greenwood) and Major Sessions (Martini), Clyne races to find out exactly what these creatures or entities are as the bodies pile up around him.
You could almost map the plot of Predator onto Spectral (or more likely it’s the other way around). Elite soldiers in a strange location run into an un-killable, otherworldly enemy, attempt to set traps for said enemy, fail to contain said enemy, and then go for broke in last-ditch effort to defeat said enemy. That isn’t to say that Spectral is on the same level as the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, for it is not, but it’s a movie that wears its action movie beats on its sleeve so you’ll easily see how it gets from point A to point B to point Z.
There’s a hesitation to watching a movie like Spectral considering it was initially meant to be a theatrical release before it was dumped by Universal Pictures, who then sold the rights to Netflix. Therefore, it must not be very good, right? Well, yes and no.
The world has changed in recent years when it comes to high-concept movies and what’s worth a theatrical released. Five to seven years ago, Spectral probably would have been in movie theaters and drawn a modest box office, but the nature of the business has changed so that a company like Netflix, hungry for bingeable and digestible content, would make more sense for a tweener like this.
That theatrical release pedigree is very obvious when you’re watching the film. It looks really good. Really good. It’s a testament to director Nic Mathieu, cinematographer Bojan Bazelli and Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop, which created the futuristic weaponry and special effects. The film boasts some impressive shots and the up-close look at the body armor used in the climactic battle just oozes coolness.
The cast is up to the task as well. “Whatever happened with James Badge Dale?” is an ongoing question that people will ask until the actor finally breaks out with a star-making role. He’s always dependable and remains so here. Mortimer does a fine job with what she’s given and Bruce Greenwood brings much-needed gravitas with him whenever he reappears on screen.
Ultimately, what let’s Spectral down, and the main reason it premiered on Netflix and not in your local cineplex, is the script. As mentioned earlier, for a story with such a high concept (U.S. Soldiers vs. Ghosts), the plot itself is fairly rote and by the numbers. You know where everything is going at any given moment and there aren’t many surprises in store from a thematic sense. At times, the story feels more like an ad for DARPA or the U.S. Army rather than a science fiction story independent of any influence.
The biggest issue with the script has to be with the characters. Many viewers decry the Mary Sue archetype in film today but Badge Dale’s Dr. Mark Clyne would have to be considered the male equivalent of that. (A Marty Stu?) Clyne is presented as the smartest guy in the room from scene one and he’s never challenged or taken down a peg in any meaningful way that invests us in his redemption. He has no redemption. The entire story is just a series of events meant to buy time until the smart guy does something smart.
Meanwhile, Mortimer’s CIA agent basically exists because someone remembered that they probably needed at least one female character in the film. Despite an initial push as a potential antagonist to Clyne, she’s neutered of her power and agency before being relegated to sidekick status for the rest of the story.
For the bulk of the story, Clyne and Madison accompany an elite squad of Delta Force soldiers led by Sessions, but good luck trying to care about any of them. No care is ever really given to fleshing out any of the soldiers, and so the impact of eventual deaths and losses never really lands. They’re as weightless as the spectres they’re fighting.
The climactic third act has its moments and the big reveal is an interesting idea that would be well worth following through on. But by that time, the film had already laid its cards on the table and needed to wrap it up in a timely manner. You can see the potential for a better movie and interesting sequels floating around Spectral but ultimately the source material doesn’t allow for any of that.
Shame, because just like with Pacific Rim, if you’re willing to make an agreement with yourself about the kind of movie you’re watching, Spectral is an enjoyable watch. If you’re not willing to get on board with the concept, well, there really isn’t a discussion (except maybe that you need to lighten up and enjoy yourself).
But if can suspend all that disbelief and follow it along for the ride, Spectral has two out of three core storytelling components working for it. That’s more than a lot of cheesy science fiction movies out there can say.