Sphere Review

by Steve Rhodes (srhodes AT ricochet DOT net)
February 13th, 1998

    A film review by Steve Rhodes
    Copyright 1998 Steve Rhodes

RATING (0 TO ****): ***

    SPHERE, the latest Michael Crichton novel to be brought to the screen, is a physical and psychological thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Barry Levinson, the director of the excellent and topical movie WAG THE DOG as well as his Academy Award winning RAIN MAN, brings just the right blend of fast-paced action sequences and slower mental exercises. Using some of the same scientific deduction techniques as last year's CONTACT, the movie involves your brains as well as your emotions.

    Good film critics develop a sense of what is enough to tell their readers about a movie to give them a feel for it without giving away key plot twists. (Today's studio trailers, on the other hand, feel compelled to give away everything to audiences in a misguided fear that they will not see the movie otherwise.) SPHERE tests the abilities of critics since several elements of the story that are best left unmentioned are so central to the critique of the movie. I will, as always, try to strike the right balance and in the case of SPHERE probably give away much less than other reviewers since it is the delight of the surprise that makes this movie so interesting and involving.

    As SPHERE opens, psychologist Norman Johnson, played perfectly with humor and vulnerability by Dustin Hoffman, is on his way to a plane crash in the middle of the ocean. Or so he thinks. It seems that years ago, as a lark, he had written a pseudo-serious white paper for the government on how to handle the discovery of an alien spacecraft. Now, they have discovered an alien craft deep down on the ocean floor that is covered by so much coral that they know it landed there almost 300 years ago. Moreover, they have detected that there is still a motor humming within the ship.

    Leading the crew that goes down to investigate is an anal-retentive officer named Harold Barnes from one of the spy agencies. As the no-disasters-on-my-watch Harold, Peter Coyote gives a stern eye to all of the scientists on board. In a tense moment after they establish communication with the HAL-like alien, Harold demands to know his last name for the record. Can't just put down that some alien named Jerry is wreaking havoc on his crew. Full names are mandatory in such situations.

    Liev Schreiber plays Ted Fielding, the author of the Book of the Month selection, "Astrophysics You Can Use." He and fellow MIT graduate Harry Adams trade barbs about who has the largest number of doctorates and who got his Ph. D. first. Harry, played with suitable mysteriousness by Samuel L. Jackson, is the odd man out. As all hell breaks loose, he idles his time away sleeping, eating voraciously, and reading Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

    Looking like ALIEN's Ripley, a close cropped Sharon Stone plays marine biologist Beth Halpern. Beth has a history of mental instability and once had an affair with Norman. Continuing with her recent movie tradition, Stone has no romantic scenes of any kind. She plays a tough cookie whose only goal is to be a survivor.

    The script interlaces just enough humor with the terror to keep from exhausting the audience. "Are you a religious man, Norman?" Harry asks in a moment on the brink of total disaster. "Atheist, but I'm flexible," Norman replies with a nervous laughter.

    The best parts of the movie are not the scary parts, of which several had me jumping in my seat, but the ones where they spend the time to consider the scientific implications of what is happening. At one point, Harry uses a beautiful bit of scientific logic to deduce their chances of survival. In another, Jerry informs his new human "friends" that he is happy. This troubles Norman greatly. He reasons that an alien with emotions is a scary proposition since beings that are happy can turn angry just as easily.

    With headings like chapters of a book the movie races to its conclusion. As the tension ratchets up, the film has trouble sustaining its momentum. By the last half hour, the picture begins to bog down, and it ends in its hokiest scene of all. (They got the principals back together last month to film new scenes after the movie had problems with its test screens. I would love to know what the changes were. Please drop me a line if you know.)

    Even though they lose it somewhat in end, the film has so much intelligence and energy than it is well worth seeing. (There I did it. I got through the whole review without even mentioning the sphere itself, among many other things. How many other reviewers will be able to do that?)

    SPHERE runs a little too long at 2:12. It is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and scary scenes and would be fine for kids around eleven and up, depending upon how prone they are to nightmares.

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