Sphere Review

by Brian Takeshita (takeshita AT Capitol DOT hawaii DOT gov)
February 20th, 1998


A Film Review by Brian Takeshita

Rating: ** out of ****

Barry Levinson's SPHERE is the latest in a long line of films based on a novel by Michael Crichton. In this one, Dustin Hoffman plays Norman Goodman, a psychologist who deals with survivors of airplane crashes, and that's what he thinks he's supposed to be doing when he is taken via helicopter to a small fleet of research vessels off the coast of Guam. Upon arrival on one of the ships, however, he learns that several of his professional acquaintances are also present, and that their mission is not to deal with a plane crash, but rather with an alien spacecraft resting on the bottom of the ocean.

During the Bush administration, Goodman wrote a standard operating procedure for alien contact, specifying the small team of experts who should be present. They include a scientist named Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), an astrophysicist named Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber), and a mathematician named Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), who come under the supervision of Harold Barnes (Peter Coyote), who works for an ultra-secret government agency. The team descends a thousand feet to the ocean floor, where they are housed in an underwater habitat built by the Navy, located close to the spacecraft. Upon entering the spacecraft, they find a liquid-lustrous golden sphere which reflects everything in the room except them, indicating that the curious object possibly chooses what it reflects. Is the sphere sentient? Their question is answered when it makes contact with them through the computer terminals of their underwater habitat. Soon, however, disasters involving attacking jellyfish, flooding, fire, and a giant squid seem to appear at the whimsy of the strange alien entity.
SPHERE starts out quite promising as it wraps the audience in the intrigue of trying to find out where the spacecraft came from and what the mysterious orb is supposed to be. However, when the action/thriller elements begin about halfway through the film, the extension of this mystery only serves to confuse the viewer. We are given several twists of plot, keeping us guessing as to the origin of the violence being wrought upon the investigating team. Under other circumstances, this might help to further the tension, but in this film, it just doesn't work. The result is a confusing mess that makes you jump every once in a while.

One of the reasons we don't go along with the plot twists is because we don't really care too much about the characters. Goodman is indecisive, Halperin is paranoid and suicidal, Fielding is insecure, and Adams just plain weirds out soon after the film starts. A scene where Fielding and Adams compare the ages at which they earned their first doctorates does very little to lend sympathy to the characters, as does another scene where Goodman confesses he defrauded the government for some quick cash. It would seem that the character we care the most about is Barnes, who is outside the neurotic realm of the super-educated. Barnes is a smart fellow, but he's also more dedicated to the job at hand than any of the others, and we just hope that their foibles don't prevent him from getting out of the whole thing alive.

Peter Coyote also provides the most convincing performance in spite of the big-name cast. Coyote delivers his lines well enough to make us believe he must at the same time complete his mission and juggle the egos and vagaries of civilians. No big flourishes for him, just good solid acting of a character with whom we can sympathize. Stone, on the other hand, flourishes a few times too often as her character goes down the emotionally unstable path. It's just too bad those flourishes aren't at least convincing. Diametrically opposed is Hoffman, who is too understated in his performance to be a leading man here. His role requires a strong performance; a real stand-out, and we just don't get that. Jackson's performance is good as usual, but his talents are contorted in this film due to the strange avenues the screenplay and direction take us. A disjointed storyline makes him near-psychotic one moment, then friendly the next.

In terms of visual effects, SPHERE suffers from the underwater syndrome. We all know that it is dark and gloomy a thousand feet below the ocean's surface, but it doesn't help us out much to give us a movie that tries to approximate this. There's one scene where the team is descending in a submarine to visit the spacecraft for the first time. Fielding looks out a viewport and says, "Look at the size of that thing." Cut to a view of the craft punctuated by a fanfare of music. Too bad we couldn't see much, or it might have actually been impressive.

This film tries so hard to be a thinking thriller that it makes efforts which only go through the motions and fail to captivate. One part of this involves time travel, and there is the revelation that if the future has no record of the team finding the sphere, that must mean they don't get out alive. To tell you why this is in violation of most time travel theory would be to give away much of the plot, so suffice to say that much of the convolution seems only to dazzle the audience with self-congratulatory cleverness that is not technically or intelligently proficient.

As I stated previously, SPHERE is only the latest in a long line of Crichton-based movies. A question occurred to me while viewing this film: Why doesn't Michael Crichton just become a screenwriter? After all, every time he writes a novel, he must know it is destined to be made into a movie. Why not just write the screenplay and cut out all that preliminary stuff? The answer I came up with is that he can make a whole lot of money off the novels first, and then make even more money off the movie option. People by the millions purchase his books, and you know what? It's because he's Michael Crichton, the guy whose books get made into movies. "He must be good," these people say in the aisles of Barnes and Noble, "or else they wouldn't keep making movies out of his novels." Well, I've got an inside scoop for you, folks. He's begun to write with the mentality that each story will, in fact, be filmed. He's become lazy and ineffectual as a novelist. You see, writing for a reader is very different from writing for a moviegoer. In a novel, you must be descriptive in an artful way so that the reader is almost unaware how he or she knows what a character is like. To simply read off a list of traits, background, and emotions is boring and insulting. "Show, don't tell" is one of the most elementary tenets of writing fiction. When you write a screenplay, however, you list as much as possible, so the producer, director, cinematographer, casting agent and actors know what the film will look like and what is expected of each character. In his novels, Crichton has begun to list. Big time. At the behest of a friend, I began to read his latest literary offering, but I couldn't get past the first fourth of the book because of the number of times the author insulted my intelligence by listing traits about the characters and telling me everything about them the moment they appeared in the story. Sad, really, to find that this has happened to the same man who once wrote novels like "Coma" and "The Great Train Robbery." The only good thing I can say about Crichton today is that he has at least continued to write from a wellspring of varied and interesting subjects, unlike someone like John Grisham, who only changes WHERE the lawyers work. But that's another story....

Review posted February 18, 1998.

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