Sphere Review

by James Berardinelli (berardin AT cybernex DOT net)
February 14th, 1998


A Film Review by James Berardinelli

RATING: *1/2 OUT OF ****

United States, 1998
U.S. Release Date: 2/13/98 (wide)
Running Length: 2:15
MPAA Classification: PG-13 (Profanity, violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Peter Coyote
Director: Barry Levinson
Producers: Michael Crichton and Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio based on the novel by Michael Crichton
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers

    By trying to satisfy every kind of viewer, it's possible that SPHERE may end up pleasing no one. Action lovers will be bored by what they will see as an interminably boring setup. Audience members who crave more intellectual fare will be disgusted by the film's sudden collapse into mindless storytelling and by the ending, which is an insulting cop-out. Somewhere out there, maybe there's a small cadre of film-goers who will appreciate SPHERE's dubious charms, but I'm not among them.

    I sincerely hope the novel is better than the movie (I no longer read anything by either Michael Crichton or John Grisham), because if the finished motion picture product is anything to go by, it's hard to understand why the rights were optioned. SPHERE is the kind of first- class mess that only a top-line director with an A-list cast can create. With expectations high (And how could they not be, considering that another Barry Levinson/Dustin Hoffman collaboration, the excellent WAG THE DOG, is still playing in theaters?), something this bad can't help but look even worse. The last time a big-name, big-budget film displayed this level of ineptitude was last year's BATMAN & ROBIN, and everyone knows how that movie was received.

    SPHERE starts out a little like an amalgamation of CONTACT and James Cameron's THE ABYSS, but, somewhere along the way, it collapses into the cellar with another recent science fiction effort, EVENT HORIZON. Science and philosophy, which are used to good effect during SPHERE'S first hour, give way to mindless, confusing action sequences. Attempts at characterization fall apart. Intelligent writing, which is evident early on, is replaced by hackneyed drivel. Special effects take over as the plotline devolves into incoherent silliness. But all that is just in preparation for the ending, which is inexcusably awful. This is the time-honored deus ex machina device used to its worst effect. I left the theater feeling cheated by the way Crichton and his screenwriters had chosen to end the film.

    There is some promise, but it's all in the setup. We're introduced to Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman), a psychologist who once wrote a $35,000 report for the government about what to do in the event that a crashed space ship is discovered. When one is found in the middle of nowhere, 1000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, Norman is called in to be part of the welcoming committee. On the team with him are Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), a biochemist who was once his student and lover; Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), a mathematician who earned his first doctorate at the age of 18; Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber), an astrophysicist who is awed by the opportunity to explore alien technology; and Harold Barnes (Peter Coyote), the government operative in charge of the mission. Together, the five descend into the bowels of the ocean, where they rendezvous with a temporary sea base on the ocean floor from which they will attempt to make first contact.

    For a while, SPHERE had me fooled into thinking it was going to take an astute approach to the man-meets-alien situation. The overall scenario is not without promise and several plot twists (such as the revelation that the enormous craft is actually an American space ship, apparently from the future) offer intriguing possibilities. Then, right around the one-hour mark (that's the time to sneak into the theater next door and check out whatever's left of TITANIC), the virtually non-stop action begins, and, once it starts, the script becomes superfluous. This might be acceptable if director Levinson generated some legitimate tension, but, instead, he relies on loud, overbearing music, strange camera angles, and quick cuts to make things "exciting." Additionally, because none of the characters are well-formed (a common failing in anything penned by Crichton, who's more interested in technology than people), viewers don't develop much of a rooting interest. It makes sitting through SPHERE a frustrating and pointless experience.

    What about that A-list cast? Not surprisingly, the most energetic performance is given by Samuel L. Jackson, but his Harry isn't a person; he's a walking plot device spouting occasionally-witty dialogue. Dustin Hoffman isn't lively or particularly good -- it's ironic that this, which may be his worst work in a decade, has arrived in theaters on the heels of his Best Actor nomination (for WAG THE DOG). Sharon Stone and Peter Coyote are both flat. Their characters exhibit little evidence of emotion; automatons would have been as effective. Then there's Queen Latifa, who, despite getting fifth billing in the credits (ahead of Liev Schreiber, who boasts at least quadruple her screen time), has less than a handful of lines and almost nothing to do other than inflate the body count.

    I like to think that Levinson and Hoffman, recognizing how uninspired this movie was likely to be, chose to make WAG THE DOG as a sort of penance (the low-budget picture was filmed during SPHERE's lengthy pre-production phase). If that's the case, forgiveness is granted. I'm less inclined to look favorably upon Crichton, although he has a few enjoyable titles on his resume (JURASSIC PARK and the Levinson-directed DISCLOSURE come to mind). Even if his novel was butchered in the adaptation process, Crichton's credit as a producer disallows him absolution. He was a willing participant in a creative travesty. No wonder SPHERE is being released in February, in the midst of the early year's cinematic wasteland. It deserves no better than to get sunk by the unstoppable TITANIC, which should plow SPHERE under on its way to a ninth-consecutive weekend atop the box office heap.

Copyright 1998 James Berardinelli

- James Berardinelli
e-mail: [email protected]

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