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DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson
FEATURING: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, ,
PLOT: A team of scientists is dispatched to the middle of the Pacific to examine a mysterious spacecraft found on the ocean floor.
COMMENTS: An unexpected side effect of the success of Jurassic Park was the discovery by Hollywood studios that Michael Crichton had written other books. Several, in fact, and most of them characterized by (a) a deep interest in the intersection of advanced technology and human hubris and (b) shoddy writing and lazy characterization. (I devoured his books in my fresh-out-of-college years, so I readily acknowledge my role in the problem.) Their high-concept plots and sci-fi trappings were catnip for deep-pocketed producers, and soon the market was flooded with Crichton adaptations: Rising Sun, Disclosure, Congo, The 13th Warrior (from his novel Eaters of the Dead), his dino-sequel The Lost World, an old unproduced screenplay called Twister, and yes, Sphere went into production in short order.
Sphere has all the elements you need for a big box office smash: big stars, a big budget, and a Big Dumb Object to serve as the MacGuffin. It also had huge story problems, so big that Levinson and Hoffman were able to go off and shoot Wag the Dog during a break in the production, and so extensive that the final credits cite one writer as having “adapted” the book while another duo is listed as responsible for the actual screenplay. The result is why we’re here: it’s a classic mishmash of sci-fi tropes and action set pieces, but executed most oddly.
One reason that things feel so off with Sphere is that the basic story—an unexplained thing needs explaining—is free of suspense. Since research rarely makes for great blockbuster cinema, we start getting twists and turns thrown at us with a taste of every plot device imaginable. Time travel, temporal paradox, black holes, alien communication, mind control, the manifestation of dreams. Meanwhile, character is ladled out in small dollops of exposition in a belated effort to give the actors something to play. Hoffman hates snakes, Jackson hates squid. Hoffman and Stone were once lovers, and Stone once had suicidal tendencies. Jackson and Schreiber are fierce academic competitors, Schreiber is embarrassed by his glasses. Coyote is and always has been an officious, loudmouthed idiot. Everyone seems to be playing that improv game where you’re handed a piece of paper with a character trait mid-scene, and you have to backpedal furiously to justify the lay-on.
When there is drama, it’s incredibly silly. One naval officer (Queen Latifah, stunningly underused) is killed by an enormous swarm of jellyfish, which the film tells us should be no cause for alarm, so she has to flail about as though under attack from a flock of bats to gin up the excitement. Later, several of the crew are, oh, let’s just call it “attacked” by an onslaught of falling sea eggs, which frankly look like condoms being used to smuggle drugs, so you just have to take it on faith that this underwater ticker tape parade is, in fact, terrifying. Walls shake, coffee cups fall over, sirens wail, and Dustin Hoffman shrieks at the sight of an eel, but nothing actually happens.
Some of the most effective scares are derived from the notion that nothing happening is significantly more unsettling than flurries of activity. Jackson gets to play against type by not commanding the room with his stentorian delivery, and the film gets considerable mileage out of his eerie calm in the face of chaos. But sometimes that stillness is carried to such a degree that it feels like a glitch, especially when Elliot Goldenthal’s hyperactive score is working so hard to generate suspense.
Throughout, characters change on a dime, usually to generate tension, a late reveal about the identity of a character provides the requisite shocking twist without making a lick of sense, and Levinson deploys every kind of distraction he can think of (including a hilariously overwrought attempt to manufacture horror out of a cabinet full of books), probably because he knows that the moment anything gets explained, all the air will go out of the story. But there’s nothing he can do to cover up the truth of a script written by committee and pieced together from ideas either unfinished or shoehorned in to generate conflict. It’s a ridiculous mess, and not even a very fun one.
Sphere is actually the book that helped me give up my interest in Crichton, thanks in large part to its comically lame finale. I’m delighted to report that the book’s ridiculous ending is carried over to the film fully intact. There’s a logic to it, but it’s dramatically disastrous, as it all genuinely adds up to nothing. Naturally, the film sells it as a triumph (accompanied by a dramatically inexplicable special effect and another Goldenthal fanfare). Sphere ends as it begins: all wet.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“I was utterly confused by the end of Sphere. And equally dispirited… This project had all the resources to make a fine film, and it squandered them all, for want of a cogent screenplay.”–Kathi Maio, “Science Fiction & Fantasy” (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by ry, who observes, “it has really strange dialogue, like their timing is off or something.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)