Sphere Review

by "Richard Scheib" (roogulator AT hotmail DOT com)
August 26th, 1998

SPHERE

USA. 1998. Director - Barry Levinson, Screenplay - Paul Attanasio & Stephen Hauser, Adaption - Kurt Wimmer, Based on the Novel by Michael Crichton, Producers - Crichton, Levinson & Andrew Wald, Photography - Adam Greenberg, Music - Elliot Goldenthal, Visual Effects - Cinesite (Supervisor - Carlos Aguello), Visual Effects Miniatures - Grant McCune Design (Supervisor - Grant McCune), End Sequence - Sony Pictures Imageworks (Supervisor - Walt Hyneman), Special Effects Supervisor - Ken Pepiot, Prosthetic/Animatronic Effects - Steve Johnsonís XFX Inc (Supervisor - Sean Taylor), Production Design - Norman Reynolds. Production Company - Baltimore Pictures/Constant c Productions/Punch Productions.
Dustin Hoffman (Dr Norman Goodman), Sharon Stone (Dr Beth Halperin), Samuel L. Jackson (Harry Adams), Peter Coyote (Barnes), Liev Schreiber (Dr Ted Fielding)

Plot: A team of scientists are brought to the middle of the Pacific where they are informed they have been selected as first contact specialists to investigate a crashed UFO that has been discovered on the ocean floor. Entering the craft they discover it is really a ship from Earthís future that has been thrown back in time through a black hole. At the heart of the ship is a mysterious sphere. After one of the team recklessly enters the sphere, they find themselves in contact with an alien entity and their habitat under attack by jellyfish and giant squids which appear to have been manifested from out of their worst fears.

Nobody, with the exception of John Travolta, has quite made a career comeback in recent years like Michael Crichton has. In the 1970s Crichton had big hits with the film adaption of his novel `The Andromeda Strain' in 1971 and further successes as a director with the likes of `Westworld' (1973), `Coma' (1978) and `The Great Train Robbery' (1979). But after that point Crichton's star began to wane - the film adaption of his best-selling novel `The Terminal Man' in 1974 was barely seen, and his other directorial efforts - `Looker' (1981), `Runaway' (1984) and `Physical Evidence' (1989) - were ignored by all and sundry. Crichton's appeal was always founded in the post-`2001' view of the future as a soullessly sterile, antisceptic world where we have come to be crowded out by our technology or where our technology is in imminent danger of going out of control. But after `Star Wars' in 1977 the vision of a cold, sterile future was suddenly replaced by a gee-whiz enthusiasm for all things wondrous and Crichton's technological alarmism became outmoded.

In `The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction' (1992), Peter Nicholls accuses Crichton's novels of reading like potential film scripts. Nicholls' slightly cynical tone notwithstanding, there is some truth to the comment in that both Crichton's novels of `Sphere' (1987) and `Jurassic Park' (1990) were originally designed as film scripts. It is a measure of just how far Crichton was out of grace at the time in that none of these attracted any attention. Crichton also had the further ignominy of seeing a substantial part of `Sphere' stolen by James Cameron in `The Abyss' (1989).

`Jurassic Park' was however a best-seller and attracted the eyes of Steven Spielberg and the rest, as they say, is history. Crichton's middle name has suddenly become "author of `Jurassic Park'" and he has found himself in the midst of a major career revival even bigger than the success he had had in the 1970s. Although Crichton has yet to reoccupy the director's chair, there have been major film adaptions of all his books - `Rising Sun' (1993), `Disclosure' (1994), `Congo' (1995), `The Lost World: Jurassic Park' (1997) - and he has provided the original screenplays for `Twister' (1996) and created the hit tv series `ER' (1994- ). The `Jurassic Park' credit alone has been enough to propel him from has-been film-maker to one of the most cinematically popular contemporary novelists, rivalled possibly only by John Grisham. (As of this writing with `The Thirteenth Warrior', adapted from Crichton's `Eaters of the Dead' (1976), awaiting release later this year that makes only one Crichton novel - `Airframe' - that has not been filmed and that is being planned for next year).

Certainly `Sphere' is probably Crichton's weakest book. In it Crichton seemed undecided whether he was telling an alien contact story or a monsters from the id drama, and the ending where the protagonists simply wished the problem away was so absurd I threw the book across the room. Crichton's novels are fine for the scientific extrapolation and the depth of research Crichton places into them but when it came to characters, Crichton is utterly flat. To return to Nicholls' comment above, it is not hard to see why one might think that as Crichton's novels tend to make better films than books - film allows Crichton's nondescript characters to be fleshed out with actors. `Jurassic Park' is an enjoyable page-turner but what really made it as a film and phenomenon was seeing the dinosaurs in all their ferocious, living-breathing CGI glory.

`Sphere' comes directed by Barry Levinson, of `Diner', `Toys' and `Wag the Dog' fame, as well as director of Crichton's `Disclosure'. The script adaption is from Paul Attanasio, creator with Levinson of the finest series on tv at the moment, `Homicide: Life on the Streets', and who also adapted (and improved) Crichton's `Disclosure' for Levinson. And `Sphere' is really quite an impressively well-made film - the unfolding of the alien contact scenes and the revelation of the alien's identity are eerie and suspenseful. There is perhaps a little too much running around between ships, but the science and underwater scenes are conducted with an impeccable and impressive realism. There is also an excellent score. Levinson and photographer Adam Greenberg invest the story with an increasingly dark, claustrophobic tone that quite begins to grip the imagination. And the combined efforts of all allow a story that seemed fairly naff on the page to gain considerable credibility on screen. Levinson and Attanasio even manage to tone down and make the ending quite believable.

But oddly `Sphere' has been the only Crichton film so far to have been a relative box-office disappointment. It is puzzling as to why `Sphere' died a box-office death as it is really quite a good film. One suspects the reason for such is that it eschews big-budget special effects which are synonymous with sf these days in favour of cerebral, psychological drama. There are no show-stopping scenes of mass destruction and the monsters that do appear are psychological not physical.

Crichton is an oddly divided writer. On one hand he has a fascination with technology - all his books come accompanied with graphs and diagrams - yet he is deeply sceptical of all this technology getting out of control. Underneath all of Crichton's work runs a single strand of pessimism. Crichton fears that human nature or simple human error will invariably cause things to go awry - be it a single strand of jammed computer tape nearly causing an entire viral containment facility to self-destruct in `The Andromeda Strain'; a epileptic becoming addicted to the electric shocks that are supposed to control him in `The Terminal Man'; or human greed causing unforeseen system foul-ups in both `Disclosure' and `Jurassic Park'; and machine error in `Westworld'. In `Jurassic Park' Crichton even manages to turn chaos theory - which is simply a mathematical paradigm for the impossibility of predicting behaviour in complex systems - into a kind of Murphy's Law where things will invariably go out of control. And in `Sphere' Crichton's themes are writ at their most visible. One film that makes interesting comparison here to `Sphere' is `Contact'. Both are films about alien contact and human prejudice. But where `Contact' says that alien contact can offer the possibility of a consciousness-expanding entry into a wider universe but that to accept it we must overcome small-mindedness; `Sphere', writ through with Crichton's usual doubts about human nature, is utterly pessimistic - holding the end view that humanity, given the miraculous ability to wish anything into being, will only manifest its deepest darkest fears and that we are better off without such a gift.

People have rushed to make comparisons between `Sphere' and other past sf films. There are undeniable comparisons that can be made to `Forbidden Planet' (1956) which involved a similar alien device which conjured forth repressed psychological fears, and `Solaris' (1972) with scientists aboard a space station being driven crazy by a sentient planet's manifesting forms from their unconscious in an attempt to communicate with them. A further point of comparative interest might also be last year's `Event Horizon' which inside its thorough muddle of ideas really wanted to be what `Sphere' emerges as. Of course the one film that most rushed to compare `Sphere' to was `The Abyss', being unaware that `Sphere' the novel predated `The Abyss'. But `Sphere' and `The Abyss' do make for interesting comparison. It may be heretical in light of the public disfavour given to `Sphere' to suggest that it actually works better as a story than `The Abyss' does but it is a case I am willing to argue. `The Abyss' had some grippingly intensive moments of human drama but the alien contact angle seemed awkwardly jammed onto the end, and the final scene (in both the original cinematic release and the 1992 `Special Edition') of the alien ship rising to the surface was a big anti-climax. `Sphere' works to a far more dramatically satisfying conclusion and certainly gives its alien contact theme a far more rigorous workout than `The Abyss' with its bunch of glowing, ethereal Spielberg castoffs who have come merely to wave nuclear disarmament flags does. Possibly this a film whose merit will undergo reevaluation in a few years time.

Copyright 1998 Richard Scheib

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