Warning, this is a spoiler-filled discussion on the movie.
Spectral is a movie about U.S. military forces in a war-torn Moldova, encountering what seems at first to be a collection of hostile supernatural entities. By the end of the movie, it is discovered these entities are “unnatural,” but in the man-made sense, not in the supernatural. This reveals one of the major memes in this film and largely in the entertainment industry in general, unless it is a horror genre where the supernatural is dealt with more as a myth, something to give you chills and thrills and a “fun edge of your seat” jump scares, yet, not in a philosophically theological sense. I know, I know, that’s probably too much to ask of me unless the creators of any particular entertainment product are proponents of the supernatural to begin with.
Still, Spectral starts off emphasizing it will go this direction. This is evident when Dr. Mark Clyne (James Badge Dale) arrives at a U.S. forward operating base in the war zone where he meets General Orland (Bruce Greenwood) and C.I.A. agent Fran Madison (Emily Mortimer). He witnesses what the war fighters witness through some footage captured by the hyperspectral imaging goggles he designed for the troops. Upon witnessing these spectrals on footage, Clyne, Madison and Orland debate the issue. Madison believes the spectrals to simply be enemy war fighters in some type of cloaking device that exhibits a fatal blow on touch. She also shared with Clyne the local superstition about aratari (spelling) which are supposedly restless spirits raised due to war. Orland initially told Clyne the technicians wrote the spectrals off as a glitch in the goggles or system at first until they witnessed a spectral killing a member of Delta Force. Clyne challenges Madison on her theory which I agreed with, she was reaching, but Clyne argues all three views are biased. He argues the locals are superstitious so they see spirits, the technician’s job is to find glitches so he sees glitches, and Madison’s job is to find the enemy so she sees the enemy. On the other hand, Clyne representing the scientist in the story is somehow unbiased, and ready to find the objective truth of the matter. Granted, his character does this, but the point I’m making here is that his character as well as Orland and Madison, along with the technician Orland spoke about, all start from a philosophically natural assumption. The only people in this who are open to the possibility of the supernatural are the locals. Unfortunately, the plot proved them wrong due to the fact the solution in the movie was already deemed to be a natural one by the writers.
Before moving further, I should be fair and admit three things. First, Clyne’s character is genuinely looking for the truth of the matter. My contention is the atmosphere of the movie from beginning to end is inflexibly naturalistic and thus Clyne’s character is unaware of his own bias like many real-life scientists who start from the automatic assumption the natural world is all there is and all that can offer an explanation. Second, when they mount the first operation to save the team of Sgt. Comstock (Ryan Robbins) and finally find him, he states to Captain Sessions (Max Martini), “You know I believe in God, John, this is the opposite of God,” implying a possible supernatural answer. However, this is a weak attempt at a distraction that what they are calling in the story Hyper-spectral targets may actually be spirits of the dead. Third, about midway into the movie the surviving members of the team take refuge in some type of metal factory. Outside someone has laid down a barrier of iron fragments which prevent the spectral from getting past as the fragments stick to their legs. This is borrowed from the occult belief iron repels spirits, ghost and other supernatural creatures. Which again hints to the possibility these things are supernatural.
Ultimately, the issue in the movie is a collection of what TV Tropes calls Fantastic Science, some Spark of Genius and Clarke’s Third Law. I will simply call it Magical Science often used in fiction. I’m not complaining that this is a bad thing, but it’s what the story used to explain the spectrals. By the end of the movie, after observing the spectrals in direct confrontation on the battlefield and speaking with a young survivor, Sari (Ursula Parker), Clyne determines the spectrals are simply an artificial unnatural state of condensing, actually Bose-Einstein condensate which can be slowed down by iron filings, unable to pass through ceramic, yet able to pass through walls, and is so cold it kills instantly upon touch. This explains all the attributes of the spectrals and the movie has its natural explanation for these ghostly creatures attacking everyone at random in this war ridden location of the country. He determines they are weapons created in a lab and primarily comes to this conclusion after Sari tells him the aratari came from a place where the fallen regime focused on weapons development.
Along with that magic science comes Clyne’s on the fly construction of some type of pulse weaponry complete with makeshift suits of protection from firing the pulse weaponry. And I do mean on the fly. He builds these items from the remnants of gear left over from the spectral attack on the main military base. Thus, it becomes more magic science to defeat the aforementioned magic science. Again, I’m not really complaining, more like annoyed this movie went to such great lengths to move away from a supernatural explanation to a natural one in order to offer a natural solution. Clyne’s pulse rifles and one seemingly pulse cannon are capable of breaking down the condensate, in theory at first until the plot armor forces it to be true. At this point, the remnants of the U.S. Forces have a fighting chance to mount an operation on the weapons development lab. In the end, the movie concludes where it began philosophically, everything has a natural cause and solution, generally speaking.
To be completely fair, after discovering the spectrals were indeed linked to human beings, Clyne concludes they are in pain. Madison challenges his reasoning asking for proof that he believes the humans who are but brains and central nervous systems in tanks can feel pain and at this point, Clyne becomes a person arguing from faith in regards to morals, which is seemingly okay now after he has established the real perceived supernatural issue was just something natural. Still, he responds to Madison, “I can’t prove it…can’t…so maybe there are things science can’t answer.” Yet, by this point in the story an argument science can’t answer everything, particularly moral issues or how to get in touch with your emotions, or the problem of evil, or the horrors of war and those who go too far in it, sort of becomes a moot issue. Throughout the entirety of the story, science was the “It” thing, it had all the answers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against science at all. My issue is with the overly naturalistic tone in this movie and so many other products out of Western entertainment. Again, no, I don’t expect much to change, but this is recognition that memes of this nature permeate even bad movies…not to say Spectral is necessarily bad. I actually enjoyed the basic storyline and felt the actors did a good job, but my point in all this is that I often find people contending with the thought creators put their worldviews in everything they produce…they do. This is evidence of it. Good movie, but oversaturated with naturalistic philosophy. Too bad on that end.
Another thing here that others may get out of this film, as briefly mentioned above, is it raises the question of how far we should go with “science!” just because we can. The Moldovans lost control of their spectral weapons project and the spectrals that were 3D printed from the humans and controlled by their central nervous system went rogue on regime soldier, U.S. soldier, freedom fighter and innocent civilian caught in the middle without any prejudice. They just killed the living with no explanation simply because they crossed their paths. We could sit here and philosophize on why, but this is not revealed in the movie. It is just a part of this universe. While none of the characters directly emphasize this point other than Clyne, who seemed to take issue with science used in this abhorring way, the movie does not come right out and highlight this question. Although, I suspect someone could argue the entire move was relatively about this point in general. Given it opens up with Clyne working on another sort of magic science technology that boils water and upon showing it to what seems to be Defense Department cronies, he is contentious with the idea of weaponizing the technology or to as he put it, “boil human lungs.” Recalling also his implied moral argument with Madison upon finding the human remains in the tanks left in between life and death as Clyne put it. These two things could imply the movie’s overall theme was actually a critique on the misuse of “science!” for war or anything in general.
Also one final point, Clyne’s mentioning of this in-between state is also borrowed from the aforementioned local superstition of the ararati as well, sort of linking back to the implication of the supernatural…again, only a man-made one. All in all, possibly making a statement against the lengths humans will go with “science!” to destroy things, including life. Sadly, despite everything that transpired, the U.S. still seems intent on trying to mimic the mistake as Clyne and Madison watch a military extraction team return to the plant to dismantle everything so they can attempt to reverse engineer it.
Overall, again, I did like the storyline. It was unique in its own rite. Arguably, it did lack some originality with hints of Ghost Busters and pretty much any story with hints of the supernatural yet there is a scientific (in other words naturalistic) solution and a mostly naturalistic answer (in other words the supernatural ain’t so supernatural) rather than a supernatural one.