Sphere of Density

Sphere: adapted from the Michael Crichton novel by Kurt Wimmer, Stephen Hauser, and Paul Attanasio; directed by Barry Levinson; starring Dustin Hoffman (Dr. Norman Goodman), Sharon Stone (Dr. Beth Halperin), Samuel L. Jackson (Dr. Harry Adams), Peter Coyote (Captain Baines), Liev Schreiber (Dr. Fielding), and Queen Latifah (Fletcher) (1998): A fairly famous mess in 1998 and still something of a mess now. But separated from tales of budget over-runs and what Dustin Hoffman correctly noted was a movie that needed a lot more re-writing and editing before release, Sphere just seems like a dud now and not an indictment of studio interference. 

The U.S. military discovers a mysterious spacecraft 1000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near Guam. Inside that spaceship is a giant glowy sphere that seems to be made out of liquid mercury but really isn’t. A team is sent to investigate. Dustin Hoffman, at the conclusion of his brief flirtation with the big paychecks of Event Movies, plays a psychologist who has been chosen to lead the civilian portion of the team because he wrote a paper on First Contact procedures for the first Bush administration. The two other big names in the cast, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson, play a biologist and a mathematician respectively. The lesser names in the cast play Cannon Fodder 1-4. 

Barry Levinson’s direction gets as much tension out of some of the exterior underwater scenes as it can, generating a real sense of panic in a couple of sequences as strange marine lifeforms menace our intrepid but whiny team. Sphere‘s fatal flaw is a scrambled, creaky script that results in scenes that are under-explained and long stretches of gratingly repetitive dialogue that even a solid cast can’t make interesting. Even the threat, once revealed, doesn’t make as much sense as the film-makers and the characters seem to think it does. 

The movie is also rife with stupidities that exist solely to create plot tension (Hey, let’s park the emergency escape sub a five-minute swim from the base, and while we’re at it, let’s not give the team any powered underwater craft to move between the base and the sub or the base and the spaceship!). There’s also a truly incredible late howler involving the decoding of an alien message that I’m pretty sure a smart four-year old would catch. Not anyone involved with this movie, though!

There is one great twist early in the movie. Unfortunately, once we’re past that twist, Sphere‘s fairly amazing similarity to a pair of Star Trek episodes* — one from the original series and one from the Next Generation — becomes more and more noticeable. Only much slower, stupider, and more boring and punctuated again and again with frustrating, repetitive scenes of people talking around and around in circles. Sphere could have been interesting, a fresh riff on movies like Alien and The Thing with a high-level cast and a major director. Instead it’s a botch, though you may find yourself watching to the end just to see how big a botch it is. Not recommended.

* Spoiler alert: Sphere mashes together TOS‘s “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and TNG‘s “Where No One Has Gone Before.” I kid you not.

The General: written by Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Al Boasberg, Charles Smith, Paul Smith, and William Pittenger; directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton; starring Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray) and Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee) (1926): Buster Keaton’s big-budget Civil War comedy astonishes in part because pretty much everything on-screen involving trains actually had to be filmed live. The timing of the various stunts and comic bits is impeccable, and the direction superb. 

Keaton was the most gifted comic director of his time, a much more innovative figure than Chaplin in that regard. The sting of cheering for the Confederacy has been muted by Keaton in a number of ways, most notably by his complete omission of African-Americans from the screen. It’s a comic triumph that will nonetheless infuriate some people for its glib view of the South. There are also some odd bits in which soldiers for both the Union and the Confederacy being shot to death get played for laughs. Highly recommended.

2 thoughts on “Sphere of Density

  1. The only Crichton novel I've ever read was SPHERE, and that was just five or six years ago. It was written at a junior-high level, if that, and one of the characters was obviously based on Carl Sagan. Crichton mocks this character, presenting him as foolish and naive, and it is a very unfair depiction of Sagan and his pro-science communication efforts. Who the fuck makes fun of Carl Sagan?! Fuck that noise.


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