Sphere Review

by Serdar Yegulalp (syegul AT cablehouse DOT dyn DOT ml DOT org)
October 1st, 1998

Sphere (1998)
A movie review by Serdar Yegulalp
Copyright 1998 by Serdar Yegulalp

I'm spoiled. Long before I had ever read a single Michael Crichton novel, I read Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science-fiction writer who has far more to say in one book than Crichton has had to say in all of his. The book in question was SOLARIS, a novel about a planet that appears to be a life form unto itself. Crichton probably didn't plagarize SOLARIS to write SPHERE, but it's simply an infinitely inferior book compared to Lem's novel.
SPHERE, the movie from said novel, suffers from all the same drawbacks. Worse, there has already been a movie made of SOLARIS, by the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, which is haunting and chilling in ways that this film, directed passively by Barry Levinson as a holding action before WAG THE DOG, cannot even begin to conceive of.

The plot: A ways back, a psychologist by the name of Norma Hoffman (played by *Dustin* Hoffman), put together a government report on what to do if E.T. comes calling. He named several colleagues of his as members of a "contact team" -- almost jokingly, it seems, but the government gets the last laugh when the team is activated for a mission to the South Pacific. Sure enough, down on the ocean floor, there are the remains of a spaceship that crashed there -- almost 300 years ago. (There is one funny moment straight from the book about the maker of the ship's electronics that I will not spoil here.)
What they find is by turns intriguing and idiotic. A pattern gets set up: we get the hint of something that may be an explanation, and then we're forced to discard it and start from absolute scratch. This is annoying. When we finally DO understand what the Sam Hill is going on, it doesn't make any sense -- and the conclusion the movie tries to draw from it is just plain limp. The effects are decent, but they are no more than a light show to support a movie that really isn't about much of anything. I kept harkening back to THE ABYSS, which generated horrible suspense with nothing more than a broken umbilical cable -- or the exploding rivets of DAS BOOT. Nothing like that holds the attention here.

The actors try. They do not get far. Samuel Jackson is probably the best of the bunch, since he can pretty much survive anything through a show of attitude. Sharon Stone, who is a better actor than people realize (see LAST DANCE and CASINO, and the upcoming THE MIGHTY!), is totally lost. And Dustin Hoffman himself does a reprise of the same territory he did with OUTBREAK. No wonder they're content to just drift: the material they're given doesn't afford them a chance to really make their performances matter.
So. When do we get a Tarkovsky revival?

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