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Film / Spectral

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Spectral is a 2016 military science fiction film set in the capital of a fictionalized Moldova. It is set in the near future where a routine foreign entanglement goes horribly wrong as soldiers are killed by ghost-like entities known as Spectrals. Mark Clyne, a DARPA scientist, is deployed to Moldova to determine what the entities are and figure out how to take them down.

Spectral stars James Badge Dale as Mark Clyne, a DARPA scientist and reluctant weapons expert. Emily Mortimer plays the role of Fran Madison, a CIA officer and translator who runs Delta Force operations in Moldova's capital. Finally, Max Martini plays the part of Major Sessions, the leader of the Delta Force team tasked with hunting down the spectrals.

It was originally slated for a theatrical release by Universal Pictures, but late into production they dropped it from their schedule. Netflix picked it up as an original film, and it was released on December 9, 2016.


Tropes in this work:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Although the majority of the vehicles and settings look the same as the present day, there are certain aspects that indicate the film is set slightly in the future. This includes: the large automated equipment carriers (referred to as "robotic rottweilers") used by the military, the hyperspectral goggles issued to the Delta Force operatives and the technology used to create the Spectrals themselves.
  • Active Camouflage: Fran Madison and her CIA superiors initially believe the Spectrals are insurgents wearing advanced forms of active camouflage, and therefore want to obtain samples so they can replicate it for themselves.
  • America Saves the Day: Delta Force and a couple of attached specialists are the ones that save the world from the Spectral menace. The native soldiers are, at best, background extras.
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  • And I Must Scream: Once it becomes clear what the Spectrals really are, some of them are clearly shown to be in distress and pain about what they've become and what they're doing. Clyne also remarks that the disembodied nervous systems and brains that control the Spectrals are kept in a perpetual limbo between life and death, and that the donors are still conscious and in terrible pain. No wonder he decides to Mercy Kill them all.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: The hyperspectral cameras' ability to merely create augmented images and the technology behind the Spectrals both defy explanation and are core to the plot.
  • Attack Drone: Downplayed with the cargo drones at the U.S. base ("robotic rottweilers") that get Spectral-revealing spotlights affixed to them on the climactic mission.
  • BFG: All the jury-rigged anti-Spectral plasma weapons Clyne macgyvers for Delta are pretty damn huge, but Major Sessions' stands out even from this crowd. Near the end, Session faces a tornado of hundreds of Spectrals. He uses his plasma cannon hooked onto the power supply of several smaller plasma rifles near the end to scatter them.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Spectrals have been defeated once and for all, and the U.S. and Allied Moldovan forces continue to fight alongside one another to overcome the insurgents. However, it is suggested that the US government intends to replicate the technology used to create the Spectrals to utilize it for their own means, which could lead to the whole situation happening again.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Somewhat averted. The first casualty in the film to die from a spectral is Sergeant Chris Davis, a white man. Later in the movie Sergeant Mcfadden, a noted marksman, is the first of the dwindling party to die to a spectral.
  • California Doubling: The film is set in and around Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, but was filmed in Budapest, Hungary.
  • Can You Hear Me Now?: Large numbers of Spectrals in an area appear to disrupt radio communications.
  • Chainsaw Grip BFG: Subverted. Clyne is often seen lugging one around... which is actually just a large and heavy spotlight that can reveal Spectrals. He even carries the battery pack on his back like the Ammunition Backpacks commonly associated with this trope.
  • Civil War: The risk of this is main reason the United States has intervened in the Moldovan conflict. By fighting the remnants of the former regime alongside the new democratic government, they hope to end the conflict quickly enough so the country will be prevented from collapsing into total civil war.
  • Cold Iron: Played with. The film's ghosts may be ultimately scientific in nature, but the only metal they're vulnerable to is still pure iron.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Victims of the Spectrals are described as having all their inner organs frozen while their skin looks burned and corroded. That being said, all on-screen deaths are instantaneous and therefore probably painless.
  • Death of a Child: Delta team meets two kids, and the Spectrals kill the boy, Bogdan. His sister survives to the end of the film.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The first scene involves a soldier exploring some Moldovan ruins and getting killed by a Spectral. He's mentioned in passing that he was a three-tour veteran Delta Force member and the best soldier on the base — and he got as blind-sided by the Spectrals as almost everybody else.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: The film's military cast consists of a detachment of Delta Force operators, one of the most elite units in the US armed forces.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: The heroes believe that if they can't stop the Spectrals here and now, the world is doomed. However, it's pretty clear at the end that there are limits to the Spectrals' scope, and either a power outage or bombing of the facility are liable to end the problem.
  • Exact Words: Sets up a Bookends Brick Joke: Early on, when Clyne is protesting having to go to Moldova, General Orland tells him that he will do his assignment so fast that he won't need to unpack. Cut to the very last scene, approximately several days later, and Orland's farewell to Clyne has him saying "See? Didn't even had to unpack (because Clyne has not had the opportunity to do so)."
  • Expy: The producers themselves described it as a supernatural Black Hawk Down.
    • The film also bears a strong resemblance to the classic Astro Boy story The Spirit Machine, which also revolves around an Eastern European dictatorship developing a machine that makes artificial copies of people that resemble ghosts which can pass through most kinds of solid matter.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: When General Orland arrives at the civilian bunker after the Spectrals attack the US Air Force Base, he reveals most of the soldiers on base were killed. He got a group of 200 away from the main attack, but only 19 survived to make it to the bunker.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Starting from Dr Clyne's arrival in Moldova to the end of the final battle, the movie takes place over four days. If you include the time he spent before being sent to Europe and whatever delay there was between the Spectral's defeat and Clyne's ride home arriving, it might stretch out to a week.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: Very early on it's established that the CIA will keep the whole situation under wraps, with Clyne having to sign a non-disclosure agreement just to be given a very basic preliminary debrief.
  • Hero of Another Story: The father of Bogdan and his sister. We never find out how he died, but he managed to figure out one of the Spectrals' greatest weaknesses and managed to fortify a building for his children to survive in and had a clue of where the Spectrals probably came from that he told his kids and they told the protagonists.
  • Hummer Dinger: The helicopters only had about 20 minutes of fuel remaining while parked at the bunker, having traveled from base to the extraction point and then to the nearby bunker. One can only assume their fuel economy is terrible seeing how they returned to the city and hovered for several minutes afterwards (indicating a short trip), giving them next to no room for error or tardiness.
  • Improvised Weapon: Once it's discovered the Spectrals are hindered by iron, the cast uses iron filings from a factory against them. Special mention goes to Clyne for combining the filings with the wind from a landing helicopter's rotors to spray an oncoming line of Spectrals.
  • Klingon Scientists Get No Respect: At the beginning, some soldiers rip on Mark Clyne as they don't feel like playing babysitter for said scientist, but then relent as their leader Commander Cabrera points out that Clyne is responsible for much of the gear that protects them.
  • Immune to Bullets: The Spectrals are immune to all human weapons, so of course bullets do absolutely squat against them.
  • Intangibility: The Spectrals can go through just about anything except iron, ceramics, and of course...floors.
  • Kryptonite Factor: The Spectrals are repulsed by iron. They also can't pass through ceramic materials, which gives a brief Hope Spot when a tank rolls in to assist the main characters, as its ceramic-composite Chobham armor stops an attacking Spectral in its tracks. Then the Spectral decides to ram into the side of the tank repeatedly, crushing it and killing the crew.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Spectrals have a One-Hit Kill Touch of Death and can move incredibly fast when they want to, including through and up/down walls. That they're relentlessly aggressive, naturally invisible and intangible to boot rates them among the most lethal opponents one could possibly run into.
  • MacGyvering: Dr. Clyne is an expert at this. First, he is able to reverse engineer the hyperspectral cameras into searchlights, which enable the soldiers to see the Spectrals without the need for goggles. Later, he uses salvaged military equipment to create makeshift energy pulse weapons that can actually harm the Spectrals. Literally overnight.
  • Magic from Technology: For most of the film, nearly everyone except Clyne figured the Spectrals were paranormal entities. They are later revealed to be 3D printed copies of humans made of Bose-Einstein Condensate, with their brains and central nervous systems hooked up to a central machine, presumably created as weapons by the previous Moldovan regime.
  • Meaningful Name: Spectral can refer to hyperspectral imaging (which enables one to see light waves not visible to the naked eye, which is required in the film to view the Spectrals). It is also an adjective to describe something "of or like a ghost", which are exactly what the Spectrals look like.
  • Mercy Kill: Mark Clyne pulls the plug on all the human brains controlling the Spectrals, allowing them to rest in peace.
  • Military Coup: Given that there is an Allied Moldovan military that is siding with the US in the war, it can be assumed they were a significant part of the army that rebelled against the Central Regime and aided in its downfall. The remaining loyalist soldiers who sided with the regime are now the insurgents.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: A less dramatic form of this is at the beginning of the movie, in an Establishing Character Moment, where Mark Clyne regrets how his scientific research is being flippantly used for weapons of war.
  • No Body Left Behind: The Spectrals disintegrate when ultimately defeated, but remarkably the human brains that control them also disintegrate inexplicably.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The shutdown procedure for the reactor that powers the Spectrals involves pulling a bracket while standing on top of the reactor and leaning off the platform the reactor is on, thus ensuring that the person doing the pulling will fall off the platform at a height where injury is quite possible. Of course, it's a scratch-built machine. The heroes also discover on the climactic raid that this same reactor (where the Spectrals that were made had been under containment) cracked for some unknown reason (they speculate it might have been a quake, but remain unsure) and deployed the Superweapon Surprise on the regime researchers themselves, killing them all.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: Moldovian or American, combatant or civilian, young or old - the Spectrals aren't picky and just kill everyone on sight. They also have the maniac part down pat due to how they came to be.
  • One-Hit Kill: Anyone touched by a Spectral dies instantly.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: They're man-made weapons of war, manufactured by 3D-printing human bodies from Bose-Einstein condensate and hooking them up to the extracted brains and central nervous systems of actual human "donors". Incredibly advanced science for sure, but nothing supernatural about it.
  • Outside-Context Problem: The U.S. Special Forces and the Moldovan insurgents are both blind-sided by the appearance of invisible beings that go through walls and have a One-Hit Kill Touch of Death. The CIA suspects people with invisibility tech, the civilians believe that they're some kind of ghosts out for revenge because of the genocides. It's not until the third act that Clyne finally has a clue of what the Spectrals actually are, and until that moment all he (and everybody else) can do is improvise and hope to hell to survive.
  • Phlebotinum Breakdown: Just as Delta has reached their extraction point with an army of Spectrals hot on their heels, Clyne's souped-up spotlight burns out beyond repair, leaving the team unable to fend off the invisible menace any longer.
  • Phlebotinum-Handling Equipment: After arming themselves with Clynes makeshift weapons in preperation for the attack on the Spectrals, the soldiers change out of their regular uniforms into heavier suits with integrated face masks. They were salvaged from the Air Base, and we don't learn what their original purpose was, but they appear to be either futuristic fire/hazmat suits or bomb disposal gear.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: Moldova is implied to have been this before the war began. The country was ruled by the "Central Regime" who were eventually toppled when the populace revolted in demand of a more democratic government 2 months prior to the films events. Said regime poured billions into weapons development, which is later revealed to be how the Spectrals were created.
  • Plot Armor: The main three characters, despite being incredibly vulnerable, manage to survive the Spectrals after they level up.
  • Real Is Brown: Most of the movie has a dark green and brown tint that one might expect from a military shooter video game. Of course, since many of the shots (particularly those that don't focus on faces) are done entirely in CG and probably share assets with video games, it's somewhat justified.
  • Redshirt Army: Delta sure puts up one hell of a fight against the Spectrals but gets slaughtered with impunity anyway most of the time. Only a handful make it out alive in the end. The Moldavian insurgents were supposedly an elite army but it is showcased early on that all of them were slaughtered by the Spectrals.
  • Resurrective Immortality: Spectrals are damn near unkillable, Immune to Bullets and only temporarily slowed down by their Kryptonite Factor. Fortunately, Clyne eventually comes up with weapons that can destroy them. Then, during the assault on the Spectrals' place of origin, Delta manages to destroy them all... for about a minute before the Spectrals' remains quickly reform and resume their attack, with most of them fusing into a giant condensate tornado.
  • Reverse Polarity: Clyne reverses the polarity of some of the multi-spectral camera's phlebotinum, and turns his cameras into bright lights that reveal the Spectrals.
  • Rousing Speech: From General Orland, before the final battle:
    "All right, listen up! You are using untested weapons against an enemy that, to this point, has been unstoppable. Now, you are heading into unknown territory. And hear me when I say you're gonna see things you will not understand. Our enemy has spread through the city in a matter of days. There's no telling how far they will spread, unless we fight back. Most men never come close... to changing the future. This is the place. And now is the time. Make no mistake, you're the last line of defense. Let's go do what we came here to do."
  • Science Hero: Doctor Clyne, in spades. He makes a point early on that, because everybody else is trying to fit the information to what they believe it should be (ghosts or insurgents with invisibility tech) they are getting the wrong answers, and once everybody arrives to the Moldovian bunker, he gets his "Eureka!" Moment:
    Doctor Clyne: I know what they are! We think we're seeing things. We think it can't be real, but it kills. So, it's real. It's something. It's not light, it's not shadow or some trick of the mind. Pass through walls, check. Outside the visible spectrum, check. Kills to the touch, check. Comstock, he was under a ceramic bathtub, is that right? Tank armor. It couldn't pass through tank armor. M1 Abrams tank armor, that's ceramic plating everywhere. It cannot pass through ceramic. You know what that means? I means this stuff isn't natural. Someone made it. It's man-made!
    Madison: "Man-made" how?
    Clyne: Okay. You have solid, liquid, gas. Lava can turn into rock, ice can turn into water, metals can melt. These are natural states. But there are un-natural states. Artificial states, man-made states. Condensate. Bose-Einstein condensate. A state of matter that was predicted by Nath Bose and Albert Einstein [...] If someone made them, they don't escape the laws of the world. Nothing does. It shines light on new laws, and those are laws that we have to learn. They have order and structure!
    Madison: They can be broken down.
    Clyne: Anything can be broken down, it's just energy. And since I know what they are, I can build the right weapons.
  • Scientist vs. Soldier: Present and accounted for: Dr. Clyne has developed technology for the military (such as advanced body armors and the hyper-spectral goggles) and has accepted that he needs the funding For Science!, but he still doesn't feels comfortable at all that his creations are being used as weapons. He also points out that the CIA isn't making any headway in figuring out what the Spectrals are because they are biased (their working theory by the time he arrives is insurgents with stealth tech and some kind of shocking weapon) and it's pretty clear in the final act that the U.S. government is interested in replicating the Spectral technology even if the only reason the Moldovians got it done to begin with was because they cared absolutely zero about human rights.
  • Screw This, I'm Out of Here!: Seriously averted. We see the last handful of military survivors drawing a new set of combat gear from the air base, fully intending to return to their peacekeeping duties despite the horrific casualties their unit had taken. Madison comments that they don't know how to quit.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Common in the second half of the film, where first there are dirty flak grenades of iron filings, and then explosions coming from makeshift plasma rifles. They even blow up a tornado made out of hundreds of Spectrals.
  • Suicide Mission: The final do-or-die mission at the very end qualifies.
  • Superweapon Surprise: The Spectrals are a technological creation by the government of the relatively small country of Moldova, due to the regime spending billions on weapons technology and research. Needless to say, no one expected them to pull that off.
  • Tested on Humans: The former regime scanned human test subjects down to a molecular level, then used 3D printing technology to replicate them with Bose-Einstein Condensate (creating the Spectrals). The test subjects brains and central nervous systems were then removed and hooked up to a central computer system to control the Spectrals.
  • Title Drop: Since the title is the label given to the film's monsters, the title gets repeated like it's going out of style.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: General Orland has one after he was forced to witness his base being overrun and almost all of his troops massacred by the Spectrals in mere minutes.
  • Took a Level in Badass: The Spectrals grow more dangerous as the film progresses. In the early parts of the film, they often seem confused and are sometimes seen milling around the street and getting confused when iron filings stop them. However, they quickly become aware of their limitations and begin to reason out ways to bypass them. They also become more aggressive and quick to attack anything they see.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: The Spectrals were presumably ordinary Moldovans, who were used as test subjects by the former government to be replicated in Condensate form to be used as weapons. However, it's implied they turned against their creators and pretty much humanity as a whole, killing indiscriminately. All of the scientists at the lab of their creation lay dead where they stand when Clyne and Madison arrive.
  • The Worf Effect:
    • The American soldier that gets killed by a Spectral in the opening scene is then introduced as a Delta Force veteran with three combat tours under his belt, or "best of the best" and "best Delta we had" by his comrades and superiors, to make sure you take the Spectrals' threat level serious.
    • Clyne and the Delta Force troops never face the allegedly highly trained Moldovan insurgents on screen, as the Spectrals have already killed all the insurgents in the places they went.
    • Even after it's mentioned repeatedly that ceramics (such as those on tank armor) can prevent a Spectral from phasing through, one of them still manages to demolish a tank by ramming it repeatedly.
  • The World Is Not Ready: CIA officer Fran Madison wants to keep the tech behind the Spectrals as intact as possible, but Mark Clyne ends it as a mix of Mercy Kill and this trope.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Moldovan kids are not safe from the Spectrals.