Review: Spectral

Spectral is a 2016 Military Science Fiction & Action movie released by Netflix.  The premise is US special forces have been getting picked off by an insubstantial creature that can only be seen on their new night vision goggles- the designer of said goggles gets called in to help figure out what is going on, and things develop in standard action-movie fashion that if not ground-breaking is not stale or too predictable.

The plot is not noteworthy but serves ably as a vehicle for some impressive visuals and well shot action sequences.  The pacing is flawless, it never feels like this movie is wasting your time.  There is a fair bit of exposition dump but the movie goes to great lengths to keep it brief and have things moving quickly afterwards.  Character development doesn’t really happen but the acting is good and the characters have enough personality to engage you with the movie.

The science is mostly technobabble but with a thicker veneer of plausibility than usual, and the film is at least internally consistent- solutions are foreshadowed in a satisfying way even if they aren’t very well grounded in actual science.  Spectral has no aspirations to complex plots of motivations and instead devotes its energy to good cinematography, actions scenes, and a fresh monster concept.  The setting is very reminiscent of recent shooter games- bombed out industrial spaces in a ruined city, but the movie does a good job making it feel eerie in a way a lot of games can’t.  It’s not a horror film but it has elements of one in the beginning, giving the movie some good flavor.

It’s nice to have a fun movie without any of the baggage attached to most theater releases these days- no complex franchise to be familiar with or an add campaign that spoils the major plot points and cost more than making the thing did.  It can just be a popcorn movie, and not compromise itself as a unit like Suicide Squad.  And that is what Spectral is, a well executed popcorn movie.  It isn’t going to win any Oscars but it is entertaining, well paced and works well as a stand alone unit.

No time is wasted teasing a sequel, all the effort in this production is simply put into making the movie good.  I have avoided spoilers in this review because in a movie market overrun with sequels and remakes Spectral retains an ability to surprise.  There’s no “What a twist!” moment from the blue but the start of the movie leaves you genuinely unsure of the creature’s origin or exactly how things will develop, and since it’s not obviously borrowing from a prequel or another film you don’t know the script going in.

Rossatron(minor spoilers in link) makes some good points in his review, though in my opinion he is a bit harsh on the movie itself.  It’s fresh but doesn’t have enough spectacle, intricate plot, or franchise investment to justify a theatrical release, but fewer and fewer movies are hitting that bar these days.  I was disappointed in Under the Dog after the hype and the cost of the Kickstarter, but it was an entertaining short film.  Spectral is better and doesn’t have any of the baggage.

TL,DR; A standard but well executed action movie with some good military science fiction flavor, give it a watch if you have Netflix and have any interest in action movies.

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Review: Hammer’s Slammers

The Hammer’s Slammers series is a collection of military science fiction short stories, novels and novellas by David Drake, following the exploits of an interplanetary mercenary company through a string of planets torn apart by war.

Looking back on my reviews of the Royal Cinnabar Navy and Lord of the Isles series, it is easy to see the common influences on Drake, and that the flaws in his other works can be traced back to trying to recapture what makes the Hammer’s Slammers so special out of context.  The planets, most with rice patties, jungles, and unreliable local forces will be familiar to anyone who has read the RCN or Lord of the Isles series’, and a clearly influenced by Drake’s service in Vietnam.

Like the Royal Cinnabar Navy, the Slammers’ usually win, but the stories lack the air of smugness that is part of the pulpier RCN series.  Victories come at high cost in both casualties and moral compromise, and the Slammers are forced to work with the unreliable locals with disastrous consequences for both, instead of simply sneering down from orbit.  It doesn’t feel like the assured victory of the RCN series, with fresh and short plots working with the rotating cast of characters to keep the reader guessing.  The stories are focused on ground combat and campaigning, which Drake handles much better than orbital combat.

This is due to the clear inspiration from the Vietnam war- the on the ground perspective gives the Hammer’s Slammers an authenticity that Drake’s later work lacks, but also a dark rawness.  It does not go as far as Drake’s best work, Redliners, which deals mainly with the psychological effects of war, but this psychological trauma is one of the main themes of Hammer’s Slammers, and sharply contrasts with the cleanliness of the Honor Harrington series and other more sanitary works, without being grimdark or violence for its own sake.

Characters come and go, often appearing only in a single story or novella, which keeps things fresh and interesting since Drake does not so much develop characters as slowly reveal them.  The characters who are repeated- Colonel Hammer, Major Steubin, Daniel Pritchard- appear briefly or on the periphery.  We never get to know them that well, so they never become predictable in contrast to Drake’s longer works.  The main cast is usually there just long enough to get to know them, and then the story is over.  Paying the Piper, the longest novel in the series, goes on for a bit too long in my opinion, but otherwise the stories are tight- saying everything they need to in a brief but complete arc.

World building in the Slammers is excellent and handled in a similar manner to the characters, brief flashes in each story slowly painting a cohesive picture without bogging down the flow of the individual stories.  Hammer’s Slammers is a fun read and interesting read with something to say about society; it’s good science fiction.

TL,DR- The series that helped spawn the military sci-fi genre remains one of its best works.  If you have not read it yet, do so.  Link to the first volume of the collection I read and image source; a smaller collection called The Tank Lords is also available for free at most major online retailers via the Baen Free Library.

Review: The Road of Danger, by David Drake

 

The Road of Danger, 9th entry into David Drake’s Republic of Cinnabar Navy series, delivers a solid military science fiction read:

  • Visceral and realistic combat
  • An authentic look at military life
  • Decent scientific grounding
  • Thrilling espionage
  • Backwater planets getting blown to hell

with just one flaw.  Nothing has really changed for Captain Leary or his signals officer and master spy Adele Mundy in this book or the previous 7, so while I am disappointed someone who has never read the series should be able to pick up The Road of Danger without issue and enjoy it.

Road of Danger is a military space opera, set in a time of tenuous peace between The Republic of Cinnabar, and oligarchic republic, and the Alliance, an overpopulated totalitarian state, with the majority of inhabited human space split between them.  Captain Leary is dispatched along with his ship the Princess Cecile to catch a rebel who the Alliance claims is a Cinnabar citizen.  He dutifully sets off into a set of fringe worlds riddled with corruption and smuggling tied to the rebellion.

Drake’s time in Vietnam is a clear influence in the novel, expressed in colony worlds blanketed with rice patties, ruled by corrupt and incompetent locals, and the incompetent superiors Leary is saddled with.  The crew of the Princess Cecile rises to its mission, cutting through red tape and human beings with satisfying ease; action and character interaction are well written, and the plot has plenty of twists and turns from conspiracies and local interference.

All of these things are what make the Hammer’s Slammers series, also by Drake, a great read- the issue here is that in the Slammers we never stay with one character for long, and get to know new ones with each story.  For some reason Drake isn’t doing the same here-any character development is largely a rehashing of things established in the first book. He hasn’t been shy about killing important characters in his other works; maybe he’s trying to strike a more hopeful tone for his space opera.  Perhaps he likes writing these characters and relationships as they are, but the result is that all the major characters are in equilibrium, which I think hurts the book a great deal.  We are robbed of the excitement of getting to know new characters, and of any interesting wrinkles in the relationships Drake writes well.  Maybe I just don’t get it.

TL, DR:  Buy it at a decent price if you like pulpy military sci-fi.

Credit for picture:  Amazon.com