Sphere Review

by James Brundage (brundage AT alltel DOT net)
August 21st, 1999

Sphere (1998, PG-13)

Directed by Barry Levinson

Written by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio

Adapted by Kurt Wimmer

Based on the novel by Michael Crichton

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Coyote, Live Schrieber, and Queen Latifah

As Reviewed by James Brundage (MovieKritic2000)

Sphere is one of those movies I hate to review more than I hate to watch. On one hand, you have the numerous good aspects of the film (top notch cast, etc.). On the other hand, you have a plot that can't be passed off in the world of celluloid.

Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, Sphere concerns a team called the ULF team (Unknown Life Form). These people, hand picked by Norman Johnson (Dustin Hoffman) during the cold war, are a team designed to make contact with alien life. On it are a mathmatician (Samuel L. Jackson), an astrophysicist (Live Schrieber), a biologist (Sharon Stone), and a shrink who didn't take the whole thing seriously and picked people to be at each other's throats (Dustin Hoffman).

All of these people are sent one thousand feet under the surface of the ocean, where they begin getting on each others nerves.

What's worse, when they discover a sphere of unknown origin in a spaceship that turns out to be an American spacecraft from the future, strange things start happening. Killer jellyfish… giant squid.... extra copies of "20,000 Leagues under the Sea", oh my!

To make a long story short, they start being killed off one by one until there's pretty much no one left, at which point the story takes a turn for the worse. The movie becomes a mind exercise, which I didn't care about but most people do.

The fact about Sphere is that it is too true to the book. It has reached that point when the book has outlasted its usefulness in the adaptation, if only because the book was a favorite among geeks like me who could grasp the ideas set forth in it and not the average moron.

The really disappointing thing about the straight adaptation of the book is that the characters in the book (and, by extension, the movie), are as flat and contrived as science fiction characters usually are. They are completely predictable, rarely fun to watch, and never engaging. The performances are fine considering, but the script inhibits four great actors into roles they can do nothing with.

A lesson can be learned by Sphere: don't make sci-fi mass market. Any movie that, half an hour in, is using deductive logic as a way to make suspense will not make most people in college or high school frightened. Nor will all of those shots at everyone reacting ultra-slowly to any given situation make them seem like evil characters. In short, Norman Johnson never can become Norman Bates.

Abyss fans will be pleased by the two film's similarities, but please don't even bother calling it a rip off. "Sphere" was written long before Abyss came out, and thus, if anything, Abyss was a rip of the book "Sphere", not visa-versa.

However, Sphere the movie is a stylistic rip off of Abyss, using eerie orchestrals and slow camera pans in order to tell the audience to be scared. It takes every trick in the book of undersea filmmaking to try to make Sphere interesting to the mainstream.
The fact remains that this is the modern world and sci-fi happens to be out. Sure, The Matrix was a home run hit, but Sphere isn't that kind of sci-fi. It's sci-fi the way sci-fi used to be done… niche market.
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