SPHERE starts out exciting,
turns into an intriguing puzzle,
then degrades to a haunted house horror film, and finally it is all pulled
together with an overly-familiar idea. SPHERE is faithful to a fairly mediocre novel
that fails to grab the viewer. It is over-powered with a more distinguished cast
than it really needs, but somehow the actors never bring the story to life.
Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: (2 positive, 12 negative, 2 mixed)
Michael Crichton has had a long career writing novels, many of which are science fiction. The most profitable film adaptation of any novel was an adaptation of a Michael Crichton science fiction novel. So in the logic of the film industry a good way to make a profitable film would be to make a big-budget adaptation of another Crichton science fiction novel. Congo failed, and I am afraid that Sphere is probably not going to fare a whole lot better.
It is a little better than the mediocre novel and it makes a film that is not even that good. The film is expensive, over one hundred million dollars; is long, 133 minutes; has a terrific cast, including Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sharon Stone; but has little that is really original and less that is exciting.
Several years ago Dr. Norman Goodman (played by Dustin Hoffman) was asked to write up a set of procedures for the government to follow if an alien entity was actually encountered. The plan he wrote was only semi-serious, but did explicitly define a team of experts who should investigate the alien. Now that team has been assembled by a mysterious team leader named Barnes (Peter Coyote) to study a spacecraft almost a half mile in length that apparently dropped into the Pacific Ocean in the early 1700s. Suddenly Norman's less than serious procedure has become an action plan for dealing with a real alien spacecraft.
Included in the team to investigate are mathematician Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), biologist Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), and astrophysicist Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber). Together they travel to the deep Pacific spaceship to understand its secrets. One major secret is the meaning of the huge sphere of gold-toned liquid metal at the heart of this spaceship.
What is disappointing about this film is that it does not have really effective performances. Director Barry Levinson is at his best with good actors rather than good special effects. The problem here is he is making a big-budget science fiction film. It has some effects, but the most intriguing effect he shows only as an outline on a radar screen. The technique is to suggest rather than to show and let the actors and the viewer's imagination carry the film as Robert Wise did with The Haunting. That could be a reasonable approach in a low-budget film. But that requires creating much more atmosphere than Levinson can manage to muster. It requires the actors to give really compelling performances and simply put, they don't. Hoffman's acting seems muted.
Jackson seems too laid back. We do not feel for these characters and do not get inside their heads. Levinson paid big bucks for his actors and does not really get price performance. And why we have Queen Latifah as a minor functionary on the expedition is anybody's guess.A cast of unknowns could have delivered as much emotional impact at a fraction of the price. Look how much more powerful a film like Alien was with only moderate actors.
Most science fiction spectaculars these days have second-tier actors and first-tier special effects. Levinson tries second-tier effects, and first-tier actors, but never makes that exchange pay off for the viewer. Perhaps sci-fi spectaculars are just not an actor's medium.