Published on June 27th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Summary: Great cast and a foolproof setting but this movie ends up as a boring moral judgement of the human race instead of the campy monster flick it could have been. Also a shocking amount of gaping plot holes from such a talented crew.
PG-13 | 129 min.
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Paul Attanasio, Stephen Hauser, Kurt Wimmer (based on Michael Crichton’s novel)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson
Distribution: Warner Bros.
Box Office: $37,020,277 (#58 for 1998)
Somewhere between the time two characters were having a pissing contest about who was the youngest to get their “first” PhD and the attack of a swarming gang of killer jellyfish, I realized I’d made a horrible mistake by renting Sphere.
This 1998 sci-fi thriller excited me because of the talent on display as I read through the credits on the DVD case. Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman, who teamed up to make one of the funniest satires ever in 1997’s Wag the Dog, joined by Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson and Liev Schreiber. Plus, a screenplay written by the guy who is credited with creating the Peabody-winning Homicide: Life on the Street, adapted from a Michael Crichton novel.
On paper, this thing has classic written all over it. Instead, Sphere ends up as a painfully boring tale about how disappointing the human race is.
The plot follows a group of egotistical nerds to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean where an apparent alien spacecraft has been found. The crew, made up of psychologist Dr. Norman Goodman (Hoffman), biochemist Dr. Beth Halperin (Stone), mathematician Dr. Harry Adams (Jackson) and ambitious astrophysicist Dr. Ted Fielding (Schreiber), are escorted to an undersea US Naval station where they will investigate the mysterious vessel. Mysteries quickly start to pile up including the discovery that the spacecraft is over 300 years old and the language used onboard is English. The colleagues’ lives are in danger after an enigmatic sphere is found on the spacecraft.
As I hinted earlier, the characters in Sphere aren’t relatable unless you graduated from Harvard in your teens, save for Hoffman’s Goodman who acts as the audience’s touchstone. Goodman isn’t likable enough to be an effective leading man, especially in the life-or-death situations presented in this film. We learn so little about these characters that there are no real stakes in Sphere‘s action. For instance, we don’t hear a single mention of any of the characters’ family members on the surface, leading us to believe they are each solitary beings. We do hear Goodman mention his wife but she’s unnamed and we find out he cheated on her with Dr. Halperin years earlier to no consequence.
Aside from the film’s characters being paper thin, the plot is full of gaping holes that can’t be ignored by the time the credits roll. The big secret behind the sphere’s powers creates endless plot gaps, as it allows the people under its spell to literally make their dreams come true. With this power at their disposal, the characters create a giant squid and poisonous snakes rather than a fully-functioning submarine that could take them back to the surface. And here, I thought they were geniuses.
One of the head-scratching moments in Sphere comes after the aforementioned giant squid makes its first appearance, prompting everyone to wonder what they’ve just seen. “I don’t know what this is but it isn’t God’s creation,” Beth chimes in. A well-respected career biochemist is talking about “God’s creation?” I’m not saying scientists can’t be religious but for a character who’s spent her life studying biology and the evolution of life, I had a very hard time buying that line as little more than a WASP crowd pleaser.
It sounds like I’m shredding this movie from gill to gill but honestly it had me interested through the first act. The storyline contains a lot of mystery early on and is presented in a sophisticated way until the jellyfish attack turns this thing into a full-on Syfy channel monster mash. Levinson’s direction keeps the movie at a deadly serious tone when it would be better to completely embrace its campiness.
The best surprise of Sphere is the fact that Huey Lewis (yes, that one) had a bit part as the helicopter pilot in the opening scene. It was not the first time the singer had worked with Levinson, he previously penned the awesome faux-patriotic anthem “God Bless the Men of the 303” for Wag the Dog. In the end though, the movie’s characters squander an amazing gift–not unlike the way a promising film was squandered by an extremely talented group of people.