– Summary –
Director : Barry Levinson
Year Of Release : 1998
Principal Cast : Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L Jackson, Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber, Queen Latifah, Marga Gomez, Huey Lewis, James Pickens Jr, Bernard Hocke.
Approx Running Time : 129 Minutes
Synopsis: After a mysterious underwater spacecraft is discovered, a team of experts are sent down beneath the waves to find out what it is doing there.
What we think : What begins as a fairly standard mystery-thriller soon turns into a batshit crazy film that sidesteps reason and logic and enters realms of insanity. Barry Levinson channels several of James Cameron’s films at once, dilutes them all and cobbles together a barely coherent story of hallucination and subterfuge, as well as undersea terror, that makes as much sense as Kim Kardashian’s career path. Sphere is clumsy, wasteful and – in the end – pointless. Steer clear of Sphere.
Bamboozled by Sphere’s fear.
Two aging Hollywood stars, plus Samuel L Jackson in full blown “weirdo” mode, and a pastiche of James Cameron’s Abyss and Aliens, as well as Ridley Scott’s original Alien, and Sphere is as close to a mess as cinema gets. Plagued by production delays and budget cuts, the film shows all the signs of either a rushed shoot and/or edit, or just a simple lack of concern by a studio willing to recoup whatever losses it had on the project. I had the opportunity to witness this film in cinemas back in 1998, and revisiting the DVD some years later, I’m hard pushed to really re-evaluate my opinion of it in any way raising the score. Sphere isn’t a classic sci-fi opus, not by any stretch, but while it might fail to elicit many thrills or even many coherent ideas, what few story hooks the film does have do bear examining, if only to see where Levinson’s underwater turkey went so horribly wrong.
Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, a mysterious underwater object is found, resembling an enormous spacecraft. The US Navy sends a team of specialists to investigate and make a determination as to the purpose of said ship, which apparently crashed to Earth some 300 years ago. Doctor Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman) wrote the report into initial encounters with possible alien life, and he, as well as marine biologist Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), mathematician Harry Adams (Samuel L Jackson) and astrophysicist Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber) follow mission commander Captain Harold Barnes (Peter Coyote) to the underwater pod near the crashed craft, in order to establish communications and make contact with any possible lifeforms below. Upon entering the craft, they soon discover that it is, in fact, Earthly in nature, piloted by humans from a distant century, and who crashed to Earth following an “unknown event”. Aboard the craft is an enormous spherical object displaying impossibly alien technology, and soon after their encounter with it, the mission begins to fall apart. As hallucinations and menacing darkness envelops the pod and the team, they soon realize that their encounter with the sphere almost certainly spells doom to them all.
Ostensibly, Sphere opens as a fairly benign star-led mystery thriller that has all the hallmarks of a decent 90’s fright-fest. What it delivers, however, slowly turns the screws on audience disinterest and utter boredom, reducing its potential to a small cast of characters running about an enclosed locale screaming into the dark. Yup, it’s been done before, and done better, as well. Sphere isn’t without solid foundations, however: the script is based on a story by Michael Crichton, who penned the vastly popular Jurassic Park (and we all know how the film version of that turned out), although Kurt Wimmer’s script, which itself was a rewrite from a version by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio, shows the signs of a budget-conscious effort thanks to Warner Brothers reducing the film’s financing by a quarter prior to filming, and as a result, has plenty of plot-holes and chasms scattered throughout. Wimmer, better known as the director of Equilibrium, and UltraViolet, tries to bring a sense of mental hand-wringing to the film, but a confused focus and scattered “villain” attempts lack edge or consistency.
The cast all seem game for the challenge of Levinson’s “thriller”, with Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone leading the charge against the film’s mediocre anchorage. Peter Coyote also pulls good moments from an otherwise wasted role as the mission commander, while Samuel L Jackson does his best “weirdo” impression after being “taken over” by the presence within the sphere. Liev Schreiber is cool as the stammering genius protege, while bit roles to Queen Latifah, as the mission’s technician, and Marga Gomez, as, um…. another person aboard, provide minor interest as cannon fodder for the alien presence’s menace. Pop-singer Huey Lewis pops in as a helicopter pilot, while Greys Anatomy star James Pickens Jr puts in a brief cameo as a military liaison. Even in the face of the script’s inanity, where confusion and improbability reign, Hoffman tires his best, even though he looks like he has absolutely no idea what he’s supposed to be doing, and the same could be said of a short-cropped Sharon Stone, who spends a lot of the film looking strung out. Their characters lack definition, however, and slip and slide in and out of believability and 3 dimensional depth as fast as the film slides into stupidity.
And about an hour in, Sphere turns from a reasonably competent sci-fi mystery into an out-and-out turd-fest. Cribbing from James Cameron’s filmography for tone, visual aesthetic and even musical accompaniment (Elliot Goldenthal’s score sounds enormously reminiscent of James Horner’s Aliens work!), Barry Levinson strains credulity as he throws his cast and crew some major script curve-balls and monstrous “enemies” to battle, even though the film doesn’t earn any of the tension it so desperately avoids by being so convoluted. Shades of Ridley Scott’s Alien, where a crew of people stuck inside a metal box, battling an unseen enemy, Event Horizon’s unseen menace, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s sense of exploration, and Cameron’s Abyss, having it set underwater with a giant red clock counting down the minutes to doomsday, as well as the “alien” themes provided at the start, make Sphere feel more like a cobbling of other films rather than an individualistic effort of creativity and prowess. Nope, Sphere feels like a Frankenstein’s Monster of other films. In the end it’s all dark corridors and running, screaming against a threat unseen and, for the most part, utterly incomprehensible. Allusions to Jules Verne, in particular, hope to lift the overall tone to something more intellectual than the film ends up being, with 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea coming in for some bastardization midway through the movie.
Sphere has the foundations of a competent film buried somewhere beneath the wobbly characterizations and limp, insipid plot twists, none of which bring any nuance to an otherwise forgettable screenplay. Levinson’s workmanlike direction, which seems alternately confused and self-assured, lacks precision or focus, undermining what little quality the script might have had and smothering it in a layer of pretentious homogeny. As bland as Hoffman, Stone, Jackson and the rest all feel on the screen, that’s nothing to the fifteen minute coda to the film’s explosive conclusion (what, is it spoiling the film to say it finishes with a bang? I think not, not these days!) that strips the preceding two hours of running and screaming and reduces it to an afterthought of ethical resolution. Scrape my skin off and call me bloody, Sphere seems determined to self destruct, a lot like the entity (or whatever it is) inside the titular globe. For fans of the leading cast, it’s passably commendable purely as a curiosity, but little else. Sphere is a crapfest, plain and simple.