Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone, Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber. (1998, PG-13, 118 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Feb. 20, 1998
Speaking as a movie-consumer's advocate -- though not necessarily as a book critic -- I suggest at least a cursory skim through Michael Crichton's source novel before going to see Sphere. This will inoculate you against an otherwise likely sense of annoyance at getting roped into a classic bait-and-switch con. In other words, don't trust the impression created by Sphere's intriguing trailers that it has much to do with the awe and terror of direct contact with an advanced alien intelligence. Without totally blowing the surprise element of this movie (which in any event I'm urging all but the staunchest Crichtonheads to skip), I have to tell you that what Levinson and company have cooked up here bears as much resemblance to, say, Roger Corman's schlocky Galaxy of Terror as the blend of The Abyss and Contact you've been led to expect. The characters are a mixed bag of scientists sent to probe what is apparently the 300-year-old wreckage of an alien spacecraft resting a quarter-mile deep on the Pacific Ocean floor. At every step in their early quest we're plied with images and music that promise an encounter with physical and psychological immensity; big stuff to wrap our eyes and minds around. But all is not as it seems. For one thing, the investigation quickly strikes a brick wall -- or, rather, a big slithery-surfaced gold orb the explorers find in the ship's cargo hold. Right about here, Levinson's skillfully accumulated head of dramatic tension begins to leak away with an almost audible hiss. The scientists start bickering (Hoffman and Stone's characters have had an ugly romantic crash-and-burn in their past, and Jackson and Schreiber are lifelong rivals). Inexplicable disasters soon begin to occur, possibly connected in some mysterious way to all the bad emotional karma in the air. And that, costly trappings aside, is your movie. Basically, what Sphere delivers is a mediocre Outer Limits TV script resting atop a massive, needlessly complex superstructure of overplotting, high-dollar f/x and banal head games. With screenplays this poor (and the fault lies not only with Crichton but the three other writers who adapted his novel), I'm inclined to cut slack for actors who are left with an unreasonable share of heavy lifting to do. So it'll be here, although both Jackson and Hoffman ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting Stone pour this much passion and energy into her inanely written role while they basically skulk in the scenery's dark corners hoping nobody will notice them. Sorry, guys, you're busted. As for you, Barry -- and anyone else in Hollywood who persists in believing Michael Crichton's literary oeuvre is suitable fodder for classy sci-fi adventure films: Wake up and smell the cheese. For every Jurassic Park blockbuster there'll be three ponderous duds like Sphere or Congo, and you can take that to the bank.