Sphere Review

by "Harvey S. Karten" (film_critic AT compuserve DOT com)
February 11th, 1998


Reviewed by Harvey Karten, Ph.D.
Warner Bros./Baltimore Pictures
Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Stephen Hauser, Paul Attanasio, novel by Michael Crichton, Kurt Wimmer's adaptation
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber
If you could have whatever you wanted just by imagining or dreaming, would you accept the offer? Just think: if you like a book, say, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," you could not only conjure it up, but you could make it a best-seller in 1998 simply by placing a mental order for 100,000 copies! You could wish Saddam Hussein a nice life in exile in Tierra del Fuego, or hope for a puppy for Christmas to your exact specifications. The folks who populate Barry Levinson's new film, which could best be described, genre-wise, as psychological sci-fi, did indeed possess this awesome potency and yet realized, as the wise men in those interminable monster movies of the 1950s that "perhaps we were not meant to interfere with Mother Nature."

    Featuring an all-star cast of Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson and Peter Coyote and including also Liev Schreiber (a favorite of the 20-somethings) and Queen Latifah (in a laughably insignificant guise), "Sphere" is a conglomeration of science fiction ideas that seems to introduce every concept of the genre from the 1950s onward. It contains a few monsters (snakes, killer jellyfish); a team of luminous scientists (two of whom received their first Ph.D's before they were 19); a UFO; time travel; a black hole; explosives which have convenient digital readouts so that the movie audience can watch the proverbial race against time; a few dazzling special effects; a romance and a few twists and some witty dialogue. Making yet again the mistake that more is more, director Barry Levinson piles on the concepts with such increasing rapidity that clarity takes a back seat to spectacle, and believability is stretched to the breaking point.
    Levinson does have a way with timing, at least at first, as the narrative opens slowly, its cleverest dialogue bunched up against a background of relative calmness. "Sphere" gathers momentum compellingly but ideas are bounced off hither and thither before the audience can catch its collective breath to sort out the import.

    When the appropriate U.S. governmental authority is led to believe that a sunken craft lies 1000 beet beneath the sea, a team of professionals is sent to the scene to explore the object, the group including a marine biologist, a mathematician, an astrophysicist and a psychologist. Submerging themselves, the explorers discover what looks like a spacecraft that landed in the ocean in 1706, but are startled by an array of surprises that cause them to be alternately ecstatic and despondent. Early on they are stunned to discover a severely deteriorated corpse of an American holding a bag of snack food, apparently
done in by a blunt blow to his skull by an enraged assassin. Little did these voyagers realize that history would repeat itself: that the current company of men and women were themselves in danger of turning against one another with murderous rage. Like the rest of us, each person in this super-bright group of pilgrims has a dark side and, if given the power to carry out their negative feelings, they could turn their expedition into bedlam. What furnishes them with this very might is the eponymous sphere, a perfect circle which appears to be a living being trapped under water for almost three centuries and desperately lonely.

    To Barry Levinson's credit the director does not at any point turn his movie into juvenile mayhem, the error made by Paul Anderson in last year's poorly received "Event Horizon." Crew members do not become squashed against walls or drowned in an ocean of blood, nor does this supernatural sphere throw off little green monsters or vampire-like essences. Keeping the film more within the controlled boundaries of Robert Zemeckis's cerebral "Contact," Levinson does allow a few of the characters to become victimized by lethal undersea creatures but in each case averts his camera after summoning just a glimpse of the bloodshed to convince us that the crew are in mortal danger.

    While Norman Johnson (Dustin Hoffman) and Beth Halpern (Sharon Stone) provide the obligatory romance (at one time they had an affair but Norman never told Beth that he was married), the chemistry between these two superstars is close to zero. But while Hoffman in no way enjoys the role he captured so cleverly in "Wag the Dog," he still provides the lion's share of the movie's wit while Sharon Stone lends the picture some brief periods of psychotic breaks. Samuel L. Jackson contributes some knowing, low-key humor to the piece and Peter Coyote, as the ship's leader, Harold Barnes, does well as the authoritarian straight man.

    From time to time we are treated to some National Geographic-type shots of the creatures of the deep, some of which do not provide the relaxation they are known to dispense when swimming about the constricted space of a home aquarium. At other times we are furnished the more typical suspense of characters trying to outrun a menacing time bomb. We human beings are our own Frankenstein monsters, as scripters Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio strongly imply, but this notion--that we have the power to destroy but do not possess the power to stop our destructive tendencies--is submerged beneath a film that throws enough perceptions for three movies.

Rated PG-13. Running Time: 135 minutes. (C) 1998 Harvey Karten

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