Sphere

A monument to deluded self-importance
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1998
Director: 
Barry Levinson
Starring: 
Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Peter Coyote
The Setup: 
A spaceship from the future is on the bottom of the ocean! A diverse team of B-actors is assembled to investigate.
Discussion: 

I saw this at the theater when it was out, and I’m not quite sure what made me want to put myself through it again [it was quite lame the first time], but I find myself quite eager to begin writing about it—so much so that I’m beginning here without actually having finished the movie. This is a relic from the ten years following Jurassic Park, when everything Michael Crichton had written was considered potential cinema gold, without understanding that the film of Jurassic Park was seriously rewritten from the novel, as Crichton is great on high-concept ideas, but poor on pacing, endings, and overall structure, in addition to the fact that his groups of characters are always pretty much the same. Which is why so many of the films adapted from his books failed—the wretched Congo, this, Disclosure, Timeline… and I know there are others. This one also has the disadvantage of being directed by Barry Levinson, beloved for Diner [although even that is starting to gain its detractors], but thereafter purveyor of self-important, hot-air-filled pieces desperately straining for monumentality, such as The Natural, Good Morning Vietnam, Toys, and Man of the Year. All that said, let’s go!

We begin with these watery credits with animated graphics refracted as though in a crystal sphere [get it? Sphere?], some of them over old-style illustrations of sea monsters. Please don’t let this raise your hopes that you might soon see some sea monsters, as I did upon first seeing this film. We also find out during these credits that we are going to be treated to early screen performances of Queen Latifah and Liev Schreiber. So we open in a helicopter ferrying Dustin Hoffman as Norman Goodman, psychologist, out to this—but wait a minute, boy is that helicopter pilot fuckin’ sexy. Daaaaannng. Too bad he vanishes from the movie as soon as he takes off. Anyway, Norman is being sent to this plane crash in the middle of the Pacific ocean to counsel the survivors. Or WAS he? When they get to the site and there’s a ton of huge Navy ships photoshopped into a circle around the site, they have to wonder. Then the screen goes black and we have a title: “The Surface.”

Norman is in the tradition of later-career Hoffman roles that are whiny, goading pains-in-the-asses, and that were sufficient for me to realize that however rewarding his earlier career may have been, I really never, ever want to see him again. Especially not in outright SHIT like Last Chance Harvey or whatever that dreck was. Ugh. Anyway, so Norman is being a whiny blowhard about how since 24 hours have elapsed since the crash he may as well be sent back right now because all those victims are going to be lost mental causes for the rest of their lives [is that really the SUPPORTIVE attitude, Norman?], when he finds out there hasn’t been an air crash at all. It turns out Norman wrote a government report on proper etiquette and welcome wagon gift basket distribution when encountering alien life forms, and thus became the leading expert on the topic. But—alien life forms? It’s actually kind of a good moment when he realizes he’s gonna be the first to meet E.T., although it’s the kind of catchy moment Crichton specializes in. His superior is played by Peter Coyote as a man who speaks only in sneering derisive yells, although at this point I haven’t caught his name. Let’s just call him Boo-Boo. It would seem that this spacecraft crashes way back in 1709, and has been just chillin’ on the ocean floor all this time, which I find rather difficult to believe. Maybe it was obscured by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Also brought in are Sharon Stone[!] as Beth, a biochemist with issues, not least of which is a romantic history with Norman [yes, this film is attempting to float the speculative sci-fi idea that Sharon Stone is going to be attracted to Dustin Hoffman], more of which on later. Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson as Harry, a brilliant mathematician, and Liev Schreiber as Ted, astrophysicist. These are the experts Norman recommended be assembled in just such an occasion, in fact, this WHOLE deal is based on his report and—as he soon unburdens to Ted—his entire report was a fake. He just threw it together based on nothing, and arbitrarily tossed all of their names on it after a simple Internet search. Can you believe it? Actually I can, because it has all the hallmarks of Crichton-in-his-sleep, which is not to say that it isn’t a good twist. Hey, Big Macs taste good.

Now another important title: “The Deep.” In here we have some interviews with Beth and Harry, facing the camera, which come off as one direction Levinson feinted in and which has no further corollary in the rest of the film. Beth tries to play down her occasional popping of a prescription drug for the interview while simultaneously playing up her mental issues for our benefit, and I hate to break it to you folks, but Sharon Stone can act. Sure, you can SEE her acting, but it’s still a cut above the majority of actors. Anyway, her supposed mental issues are another thread this movie is trying to toss out there in hopes it’ll work, and contributes to the “Mental pressure!” content were about to have. The crew get intensive dive training, although we don’t get a repeat of my favorite line from this kind of situation: “Most deep-sea divers train for ten years for this kind of mission. You have 15 seconds.” They also receive some heavy exposition—gee willikers, I wonder if this will become important at the end?—where they are told that if they surface without decompression, they will explode like water balloons. Hot! I wanna see that. Then the script flails to play up the “psychological pressure” of the claustrophobic environment, with Ted having some minor complaint, and Norman spouting out with “You’re having a stress reaction.” It’s just one of the many times you’ll want one of the characters to turn to him and shout “FUCK OFF, NORMAN!”

They dive, and soon see the alien spaceship, which is a huge fin protruding from the sea floor. At times like this the musical score, by Elliott Goldenthal, is astonishingly loud and bombastic, part of the whole tone of self-importance. Then they are introduced to their “habitat,” which is comprised of a number of—you guessed it—trapezoids. No, SPHERES, silly. There is a lot of attention paid to the super-advanced mechanics of all the airlocks and doors and buttons and gizmos, surely in large part to blame for this films unforgiveable 135-minute runtime. One other thing they try to float is that, because of the gases and chemicals they breathe in the pressurized habitat, they all speak like they’ve just breathed helium. Thus, they must constantly wear their “voice regulators,” which are mentioned, but never, ever seen. You don’t want Sharon Stone running around with some contraption constantly on, do you? Like in Battlefield Earth?

Now a title: “The Spaceship.” By now these little segments have had so little to distinguish themselves, this whole titling thing comes off as just another stretch for “importance.” They also STOP you any time you might be getting into the story and remind you that you are watching a movie. So our crew is outfitted in space-age wetsuits and venture over to the spaceship. As they slowly walk over in near real-time, you will have time to say to yourself “Okay, AS IF the government is going to send four unarmed civilians into an extraterrestrial craft before anyone has gone in there to assess the threat.” But in they go. They just touch the outside and the door opens, so they go in. Soon they split into two teams, with Beth and Norman on one. Beth thinks that this might be the best time to revisit some sore issues lingering from her affair with Norman, not least of which is—well, that he was her psychologist and she his patient, which they don’t seem to think is a big deal—but also that he neglected to inform her that he was married the whole time. Ted and Harry on the other team have a frat boy-like rivalry about who got their Ph.D. first, at the age of 18. This is classic Crichton for you: That highly-educated, Ph.D.-at-18 scientists are just AWESOME FRAT DUDES who happen to hold advanced degrees.

SPOILERS > > >
So they explore, and find a bin marked “Trash – Basura.” Ok, that’s weird, but I guess aliens need identifiable refuse bins as badly as we do. Then they find a mummified person, with a salted peanuts wrapper in his hand. And they realize that they are on an American spaceship from the FUTURE. Which is kind of a cool idea. The ship fell into a black hole and somehow ended up there. I like how recently in movies, like the Abrams Star Trek, it has just become accepted knowledge that black holes are portals through time—something that in reality is not at all known. Anyway, downstairs in the ship is the sphere of the title, which is golden and constantly undulating, and freaks them out when they realize that THEY are not reflected in its surface. Woah, dude. Nutty.

So as they’re sitting around blathering about what the sphere could be, I couldn’t help but notice that they have a lovely plate of fresh-looking muffins sitting out—in their sealed-off habitat miles below the ocean. I guess freeze-dried food items have improved for high-level scientists living in hostile environments. And now we start to have the seemingly required, and wholly predictable, pointless complications. The inevitable cyclone is approaching the ships at the surface. Please be advised that every time man ventures down to an undersea base, a massive storm is triggered on the surface. The crew are going to be evacuated—since it’s not an alien, this is now a military operation! Blah, blah, protest. Then the storm strands them down in the habitat. Blah, blah, more hugger-mugger. This is an example of the completely unnecessary, time-wasting plot complications Crichton traffics in. And ladies and gentlemen—we are ONLY 36 minutes into the movie.

By now Boo-Boo’s character seemingly has no function except to yell at Norman for not disclosing this or authorizing that. Then Harry makes an unauthorized trip over to see the sphere, and it suddenly reflects him, then he vanishes. Norman goes over, and Harry reappears, unconscious. This triggers another flail for interpersonal drama as Boo-Boo seizes command and starts laying down orders.

Then Queen Latifah goes out for an ocean walk to pick up some smokes, and stops to peruse the beauty of all the surrounding jellyfish. “Aw man, this is beautiful” she says forty times, before the Jellyfish start crowding her and eventually attacking. Only—and here’s where you start to realize that this is actually somewhat of a bargain-basement big tentpole movie, because from the long shots we get it doesn’t really look like the jellyfish are bothering her at all. So she dies. Then Boo-Boo starts yelling at Norman again, this time for recommending Beth, when she obviously has a “mental history.” In here their computers start getting flooded with data for the third time, but this time they finally notice. They decode the info, and the message comes through: “Hello, I am Jerry. I am happy.” Holy cephalopod, are they in contact with an alien intelligence? Know-it-all Norman, which his advanced psychological powers, soon deduces that Jerry has the mind of a child, and, in a trailer-ready moment, asks: “What happens when Jerry gets mad?” While he’s saying that, he feels compelled to make THIS face:

I guess it’s all just so INTENSE, isn’t it? At least we can pretend it is. Then the other woman on the crew goes outside and her entire body gets pulverized somehow, and when Norman and Beth go out to bring her body back, the habitat gets attacked by a giant squid. Only the budget had clearly exceeded its limit at this point, so we never actually SEE any squid, there are just a lot of bangs and a shower of falling eggs. Apparently giant squids stage large-scale attacks on undersea labs while laying copious amounts of eggs. Any first-year science student knows that. Then there’s a lot of bangs and leaks and trouble, and in here Boo-Boo dies. Meanwhile, Norman is patronizingly talking to Jerry like he’s a child, and there’s a fire, and finally—we cut to another title, and never see the scene resolve.

Later, Norman is chatting with Jerry, and opening up about his weakness in not doing enough to save Ted, and you’re like: Dude, he’s an alien intelligence, not your fucking therapist, okay? Norman then turns to withering psychological diagnoses, as he is wont to make, telling Jerry “With all your power, you don’t have the power to stop,” at which point Jerry says “Stop calling me Jerry.” And you at home are like “Finally, the alien is pissed and Norman’s head is soon to be crushed,” but I’ll advise you not to get your hopes up.

Norman comes upon Harry, who slept through the attack. He is reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Then Norman goes outside and supposedly has some sort of attack, although clearly NOTHING is happening. Maybe a few extra bubbles. There are moments like when Norman is screaming about how his helmet is fogging and he can’t see, even as we can clearly see his face through his non-fogged helmet. Then follows a massive load of bullshit that I won’t even trouble you with, but it concerns Harry and Norman turning on Beth and calling her a psychotic wingnut, which Norman does with his trademark smug sanctimony. Blah, blah, soon we realize that since Harry went inside the sphere, his dreams have been manifesting themselves as reality. That’s the big twist, folks! Woah, freaky. Oh wait, there’s one more: Norman re-translates the code, and realizes that the person they’ve been talking to via computer is HARRY, not Jerry. This causes an “Oooh!” moment, but only a second’s thought reveals it as ludicrous: if they had mistranslated the code this way, several of the computer’s other utterances would be screwed up or garbled, and they aren’t. Oh dear.

The movie now starts flailing in any and every direction, throwing in anything that might raise a pulse, without regard to whether it makes sense or gives the film an overall shape. First, Beth sets a bunch of explosives. She utters some justification at some point, but it’s obviously because all movies are required by law to end with a big explosion. Then—sea snake attack! Then—Beth tries to drown Norman! And Norman can survive without a wetsuit at the high-pressure extreme depths of the ocean! He doesn’t even freeze to death! Then they realize that the astronauts grew afraid of each other til they killed each other—and that’s what’s happening to them! This revelation causes Beth to blurt: “I don’t wanna kill you, Norman,” to which point I had to shout: “Well I do!” I should mention that there proves to be no force in the universe—including weeks of extreme emotional pressure in an undersea lab—that can alter Beth’s salon-perfect locks. Anyway, then they have to run to the mini-sub, because the whole place is going to go up like a tinderbox! A deep-sea tinderbox! It could SO happen.

So they get to the mini-sub, which is a glass sphere, despite the fact that they are supposedly many crushing miles beneath the surface [it’s supposed to be SCIENCE fiction, guys!], and they’re starting to power up when—suddenly they’re in the alien spaceship! This was one of the few good moments of the movie. They bicker some more, as usual, until they finally realize that they are actually still on the mini-sub, and it’s all an illusion. Blah, blah, Norman finally has the sense to press the button. They start to rise, and aren’t far away when the bomb goes off on the spaceship and their habitat explodes like a nuclear bomb. A nuclear bomb with a ginormous shockwave that they just ride to the surface. God, I CANNOT WAIT for the news story that someone in real life thought he would ride an explosive shockwave somewhere and ended up killing himself. Anyway, there’s a short scene in decompression [labeled “Day 1,” although we see no further days], and this was apparently added later when audiences complained. Of course, all they would really have to do is remove the exposition from the beginning telling us that rising without decompression would kill them. I mean, why is this element any MORE ridiculous than the rest?

There is one final scene in which Beth is eager for the guys to join her in inventing a story to tell the government. Why they can’t just tell them what happened is not discussed. They all agree that they still have the power to manifest their unconscious thoughts—how they know this is unclear—and ultimately decide that the best thing for them is to simply forget, and manifest their forgetfulness. This causes Norman to blather on about how here humans are offered the opportunity of a lifetime, yet all they manifest for themselves is fear and hatred, until I was literally yelling “Shut up! SHUT UP!” at my screen. They count to three and forget—which flies in the face of the idea the rest of the film is based on, that the sphere manifests one’s unconscious thoughts, and I doubt even Crichton would posit that you could just decide to forget something at the count of three and truly drive it from one’s unconscious. Let alone that three separate people could do it simultaneously. Anyway, this inexplicably causes the sphere to rise from the ocean floor and fly off into space, seen by many Navy personnel. But seriously, by now anything makes as much sense as anything else.

Before we leave the spoilers, let’s discuss the non-appearance of the giant squid. Some claim that the reason we never see it is not budget constraints, but because it doesn’t actually exist. I could buy that, but the problem is that most, if not all of the other elements from Harry’s dreams DO manifest themselves in reality, and we have no indication that they—or the squid—do NOT actually come into existence. Therefore I maintain my assertion that the squid doesn’t appear because they just didn’t have the money. Also—what did the squid eggs have to do with? I don’t believe they appear in 20,000 Leagues, which is supposedly the source of the squid image. Ugh, it hurts.
< < < SPOILERS END

I just don’t know where to begin. I recall that after seeing the movie the first time, that it had what I termed the “Star Trek Ending,” which is where there is just one simple hook like ‘The Planet Is Alive’ or ‘The Rock Is a Sentient Being’ or ‘The Probe Thinks Humans Are a Virus’ or something, and that’s kind of how it is. The problem with that is that while it works for a one-hour episode of an established series, as the big idea for a movie it can’t help but come off as kind of a bummer. Once you get the hook you go “Oh, that’s IT.” And the big hook here isn’t really even explained that well, and once you understand it, it’s still extremely murky. There just seem to be no established rules and after it just seems like anything not only can happen, but probably will, and after awhile you just stop paying attention. That said, even by those standards, this movie seems to be throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you by the end, desperate for anything to have an effect. There is certainly something to be said for the idea of having to get out of a place while one’s mind is playing tricks, but—it just doesn’t work here.

Great evil fun can be had by going to the IMDb page for this film and sorting by “Loved It,” because apparently there are a great number of people out there who consider this the zenith of thoughtful science fiction. In fact, several of them think it’s so gosh-darn brainy that if you don’t like it, clearly YOU do not have the intelligence it would take to enjoy it. This is usually quickly followed by the common assertion that you probably only have the brains to hack films on the level of Deuce Bigelow. My favorite of all these comments has to be this one: “This is a classic. FORGET the overrated crappy, boring, stupid and empty R. Scott 's Alien. This is horror at its best .”

Sadly these people don’t really know that the joke is on them in that this is just a waterlogged, pop-culture comic book version of Solaris. To the extent that I would lay serious money that Crichton saw Solaris and consciously said to himself “You know, I could just rewrite that with some more explosions and monster attacks, and have a GOLDMINE!” So it’s a joy to read people dissing others for not having the brains to digest this film, without knowing that this is just a pale imitation of another film, whose minimal action and high character involvement would probably test THEIR brains. That said, I have read/seen enough Crichton to know that this is just… VERY typical. The SAME diverse array of characters. The SAME structure. The SAME good ideas, with the same hooks, blown out with the same narrative tricks and complications to extend the running time. This is why I have said so often in this review that this is “Crichton in his sleep.” Truth be told, I got a free copy of the novel of Crichton’s Timeline [the movie of which I enjoyed very much—despite it being total garbage], but threw it out after a few chapters, once I realized that like everything the man writes, it’s just a few good ideas mixed amongst so much whipped-up narrative froth. And hey, I’ve got things to do.

So this is just crap, although it could easily get by on a “cheesy sci-fi” pass if it were only 45 minutes shorter! But I guess if it was under two hours we wouldn’t know it was “important.” I think this film pushed me over the edge to include Levinson on my most-hated directors list. The several strains this film makes for self-importance indicates that Levinson can’t tell the difference between ideas that ARE important and ideas that just SEEM important. Or he just doesn’t think that WE can tell the difference. In any case, Christ, the man is just poison.

Should you watch it: 

If you have a high tolerance for self-important but mediocre sci-fi.