Sphere (1998)

D: Barry Levinson
S: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson

Four scientists are called to the middle of the Pacific where the usual mysterious military/industrial complex guys have set up shop to study what appears to be a crashed alien spaceship on the ocean floor. Trapped underwater during a cyclone, they encounter a strange force which threatens to destroy them.

Contact meets Event Horizon; or something like that (you could call it an underwater remake of Solaris if you liked) from the novel by Michael Crichton. Whatever way you describe it, this is typical 'high concept' stuff, a big budget sci fi extravaganza, etc., etc., which presumably gave Hoffman and Levinson enough pocket change to make Wag the Dog, and is probably the only reason they got involved with it.

Muddled and generally unconvincing, the film gives too much time for the nagging doubts to become major problems as the plot contrivances and deliberate withholding of information fail to hold attention. We are quickly left with the lazy performances of the big name cast and some particularly uninvolving fright scenes until the meaning of it all finally becomes clear to the characters (you will have figured it out long before that, but it won't help). Tedious, overlong and frequently silly, the film walks over its own tail too many times to be excused and never rasies itself even to the fun-stupid level of Congo.

It is riddled with plot inconsistencies and rapid character changes which are later excused by some vague mutterings about how the subjective experience of reality changes more than just one's perceptions. Samuel L. Jackson suffers particularly badly, and is not even given the dignity of becoming the full blown bad guy Sam Neill became in Event Horizon. Instead the film becomes increasingly obsure about what is real and what is not in a way which shows how poorly Levinson is suited to the material (this is Brian De Palma territory if anything). Stone and Hoffman try hard to pretend there is some kind of chemistry between them as their characters play out a love-hate conflict from their past, but nothing comes off the screen other than mild hostility which may be real life and professional for all we know. Though widescreen images and solid enough production design provide some mild eye candy, the trappings are really too familiar from films like The Abyss to be of any real interest. The special effects are not particularly impressive either. Lacking genuine drama in the dynamics of story and characer, there really is little left for the audience to do but notice its flaws. These eventually become seriously annoying and the whole thing collapses long before it comes up with a pat ending which doesn't really resolve the issues even though it seems intended to.

Once upon a time Michael Crichton was capable of coming up with thought provoking and interesting sci fi films (Westworld, The Andromeda Strain), but the most recent crop of adaptations have been less than rewarding (The Lost World included). This film will frustrate and disappoint those who might have had some lingering hopes given the calibre of the people involved with its production, but it will simply bore those of a more neutral disposition. Avoid.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.