One of the underrated joys of science-fiction is in how it can combine with and elevate any other genre. You want a romantic comedy with a sci-fi twist? That’s Palm Springs. Sci-fi with a comedy twist? Look no further than Flubber. How about a sci-fi rom-com that’s also a musical? Let me introduce you to Future Folk.
Though sci-fi is easily malleable, figuring out how to balance it with other elements can be a difficult balancing act. One 2016 film proves just how nuanced a sci-fi element can be while still working in tandem with other genre ingredients to create a truly thrilling experience.
A Netflix Original from 2016, Spectral is a sci-fi military action film directed by Nic Mathieu. Its premise is simple, but deadly. Like most creature features, Spectral begins with an unsuspecting character falling prey to a terrifying threat that then looms large over the rest of the story. In Spectral’s case, that monster is as frightening as it is difficult to see. A soldier deployed in Moldova wears special goggles that eventually pick up on a shifty, shadowy being. But before he can take cover, this apparition passes through him, killing the soldier instantly.
It’s the kind of opening that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie, but Spectral’s tone shifts soon after, moving its focus to Dr. Mark Clyne (Iron Man 3’s James Badge Dale), a researcher who developed hyperspectral imaging goggles for soldiers to use in the (fictional) Moldovan war. After the events that open Spectral, Clyne is brought to the front lines to confirm if that shimmering presence documented by the googles was just interference, a trick of the light, or something more sinister.
What follows is a typical war thriller, but one made infinitely more interesting by the nature of the specters Clyne and others discover in Moldova, entities that terrify through their sheer killing power and invisibility. Clyne is able to rig a large camera up to a spotlight, MacGyver-style, so everyone can see the specters without the use of goggles. But while the visibility issue is easily solved, the characters grow desperate in searching for any weakness that could help them defeat the apparitions.
The genius of Spectral is in how it lives between genres, existing as both a science movie and a science-fiction thriller, an action thriller and a gritty military flick, a cautionary tale and a straightforward monster movie.
But it’s not just the content of Spectral that exists in flux. In 2016, Netflix was still cutting its teeth on original programming, especially when it came to the streamer’s feature-film efforts. Spectral was one of the first blockbusters Netflix picked up, a departure from earlier indie titles like The Fundamentals of Caring and ARQ. As a result, Spectral feels a lot richer than you might expect. Though it visually falls in line with other Netflix releases, the ambition behind the ideas it explores, specifically those in line with the “science” side of the film’s science-fiction, actually pays off.
That’s all thanks to the delicate balance Spectral strikes between military and sci-fi elements throughout its runtime. At no point does the technology used on screen seem unbelievable. Even when the source of the specters is revealed, their origins feel reasonable within the film’s nightmarish near-future. And making the protagonist not a soldier but a scientist keeps the combat from taking center stage, allowing Spectral to expertly navigate both genres.
“We wanted Spectral to operate on two levels: as an action movie about a unique antagonist that just seems impossible to kill, and as a story about science itself,” said director Nic Mathieu, speaking to Ars Technica. Expanding on the film’s unique approach to science-fiction, he added:
The key point, if you are analysing the science of Spectral, is that the main character is a scientist and he uses science to overcome a situation where brute force keeps failing. In the true spirit of the scientific method, he initially refuses to give a diagnosis until he has sufficient evidence—"comfortable not knowing" even in the face of pressure. Once he's able to make an educated guess based on empirical evidence, his insight enables them to build the right arsenal to fight back. In this sense, Spectral can be seen as a tribute to the scientific method disguised as an action movie.
With all that in mind, Spectral is a movie about the ways we think about war, death, and the ethics of technological advancement. It’s also a genuinely great monster movie and an impressively well-made military thiller, the kind of under-the-radar gem that deserved to be Netflix’s first blockbuster. It’s not too late to watch Spectral and give this underrated sci-fi war film the love it deserves.
Spectral is now streaming on Netflix.