Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

February 13, 1998


Sphere is an ambitious movie with a fine cast and crew.

It's still an off-putting bore. Adapting yet another novel by Michael Chrichton (his last take on the author was the painfully silly Disclosure), director Barry Levinson takes a familiar, but potent setup and demolishes it.

Dustin Hoffman (an Oscar nominee for Levinson's Wag the Dog) stars as Norman Goodman, a psychologist who thinks the U.S. government has recruited him to counsel air crash survivors. Those bureaucrats can be deceptive. It seems the Navy has found a fallen spaceship in the bottom of the ocean and has coerced Norman and a team of other scientists who can't stand each other into investigating.

After a long spell where the audience and the team are given lots of dry technical details, Norman, the other scientists (Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson and Liev Schreiber) and their fussy commander (Peter Coyote) sail to the ocean floor. They discover that the vessel's only inhabitant (other than some mangled human corpses) is a giant metallic ball. When one of the team members actually manages to enter the sphere, mysterious disasters begin to plague the crew. For example, a school of jellyfish attack one of the sailors even though the water is too deep for these creatures.

If the investigators only had to deal with malevolent aliens or sea monsters, the movie might have been more enjoyable. Instead, Levinson and his committee of writers can't figure out what kind of movie they are trying to make. He tries to juggle the otherworldly terrors with the psychological chills from the dysfunctional crew. Levinson plays with a lot of ideas, but he abandons them before they can really develop. As a result, Sphere becomes more confusing than suspenseful. How the globe got down there and why anyone would care are only partially addressed.

To make matters more annoying, Sphere has gaps in credibility deeper than the Mariana Trench. Fore one thing, the audience is expected to believe that Hoffman and Stone--who have no on screen electricity together--once had an affair (and Hoffman playing Tom Cruise's brother once seemed a bit of a stretch). Later in the film, Hoffman ventures out into the deep wearing only a scuba mask and survives despite the crushing water pressure. The cast appears to sense this is balderdash. Hoffman's performance is solid, but he looks like he'd rather be elsewhere.

Too dour for escapism and too convoluted for interpretation, Sphere ultimately feels like a tiresome, watered-down rehash of The Abyss. Without momentum or a sense of purpose, Sphere is a big movie with big stars that offers little reward (PG-13). Rating: 3.




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