Sphere Review

by "Nathaniel R. Atcheson" (nate AT pyramid DOT net)
February 20th, 1998

Sphere (1998)

Director:  Barry Levinson
Written by:  Stephen Hauser, Paul Attanasio
Producers:  Michael Crichton, Barry Levinson
Cast:  Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Coyote, Queen Latifah, Liev Schreiber, Marga Gomez
Runtime:  135 min.
Production Company:  Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13:  Language, intense scenes, sci-fi violence

By Nathaniel R. Atcheson ([email protected])

As I wrote in my review for the egregiously underrated Event Horizon, I hate being alone when it comes to opinions on films.  And here I am again, in the position of having loved a film that most people--critics and audiences--are likely to despise across the board.  I read reviews of Sphere before seeing it, and I was expecting a bad film.  I read them again afterwards, and now I simply disagree with every word.  This film apparently struck me differently than it did everyone else--when they said "boring," I was saying "captivating."  When they said "rushed," I said "intense."  In fact, there's nothing I didn't like about Sphere:   to me, this is everything that a big-budget thriller should be--suspenseful, interesting, atmospheric, well-acted, and well-written.
I saw Sphere with four friends.  Each one of them had read the Crichton book, and I, obviously, had not (and still haven't, and probably never will...).  My less-discerning friends thought the film was a good translation of the book, and enjoyed both equally.  My opinion-heavy friends, who loved the book, hated the movie.   In fact, one of my friends even went so far as to describe Sphere as a bigger disappointment than Congo.  I had to draw the line there. 

Sphere opens with the gathering of four professionals--psychologist Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman), mathematician Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), astrophysicist Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber), and biologist Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone).  They are gathered as a contact group for a suspected alien spacecraft found 1000 feet below the surface of the ocean.  When they go down to check out the enormous craft, they find (you guessed it) a big golden ball!  Actually, it's more precise than that--it's a perfect sphere.  As the characters try to figure out what the sphere is, they apparently get on-line with an alien being called Jerry...and all hell breaks loose.   The majority of the film is spent in chaos.

Well, let me get on with why I was fooled by this apparently-horrible film.   First, I'm talking suspense.  I can't remember the last film I saw that was this suspenseful.  Looking at my fingers now, I see that I mindlessly chewed them to a pulp as I was watching.  Director Barry Levinson does such an extremely good job of building suspense throughout the film that, by the end, I felt totally exhilarated.   Some of the scenes, such as an attack by a giant squid summoned by Jerry, are chaotic without being incoherent, and the result is an array of staggeringly claustrophobic action sequences taking place inside the small underwater habitat. 

Another common critical point with which I fundamentally disagree is the suggestion of the character-less characters.  Now, keep in mind that I went into Sphere expecting to dislike it.  I was looking for reasons to dislike it, but I couldn't find a one.  This includes the characters--the five main characters (the fifth being the military man Barnes, played by Peter Coyote), by action film standards, are all extremely well-written.  And it doesn't hurt that the film has a God-granted cast to play the parts.  Hoffman is excellent in the main role:  he is convincing as a psychologist (well, Hoffman is convincing as anything), and in the scenes in which he begins to lose his mind, he acts just the way I would expect a psychotic psychologist to act. 
Sharon Stone is wonderful here--her character is fascinatingly paranoid, and her condition is only accentuated by the effects of living in an underwater habitat.  The relationship between Norman and Beth, too, is well-developed (though I understand that this aspect is not in the book) and by the end of the film, I was truly concerned for the characters and wanted them to live.  Jackson, as the mathematician, is also sharp in his role, and in later scenes he manages to be truly terrifying just by smiling.  The supporting performances, particularly from Schreiber, are good as well.

Since I haven't read the book, I have no idea what magical words it contains to warrant such an enormously negative response from fans of it.  All I know is that films never follow the books closely, and that's because there is a lot of information that can't possibly be naturally stated in the film without bogging down the audience.  Sphere is already long--well over two hours.  I don't know what could have been possibly left out, because the themes and plot turns in this film are fascinating and engrossing, and at the end of the film I had no questions--everything was clear.  As far as I'm concerned, screenwriters Stephan Hauser and Paul Attanasio have done a great job writing the film.

So, here I am again, alone in my opinion.  Perhaps it's a mistake to form a review as a paranoid decree of possible misunderstanding.  That, in effect, is what I am doing--if I were so sure that there is nothing wrong with Sphere, I probably would not have mentioned the Other Critics.  Maybe I'm so self-conscious of it because I continually like films that are generally lambasted by everyone else.
This time, however, I'm standing my ground.  I'm not changing my rating or my review no matter how many negative views I read or hear about.  You see, I simply can not understand why everyone hates Sphere.  I loved every bit of it--I didn't want it to end.  For me, it did everything right.  And I'll probably see it over and over again, and with each viewing it is likely that my curiostiy as to what, exactly, makes this such a bad film will inflate exponentially. 

>From 0-10: 8
Grade: B+


    Nathaniel R. Atcheson

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