Rating -

Sci-Fi/Thriller (US); 1998; Rated PG-13; 143 Minutes

Dustin Hoffman: Dr. Norman Goodman
Sharon Stone: Beth Halperin
Samuel L. Jackson: Harry Adams
Peter Coyote: Barnes
Liev Schreiber: Ted Fielding
Queen Latifah: Fletcher

Produced by Patricia Churchill, Michael Crichton, Peter Givlano, Barry Levinson and Andrew Wald; Directed by Barry Levinson; Screenwritten by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"Sphere" is a book written by a man who has great talent. Previous evidence demonstrates that movie adaptations of his literary work can pay off big time, and not just commercially, either. After all, didn't "Congo" and the "Jurassic Park" movies do fairly decent critically? Weren't they considered to be successful?

The fact of the matter is this: Michael Crichton, the author in questioning, knows how to make good stories and knows who can make them into great movies. He knew that Steven Spielberg could make "Jurassic Park" into a multi-million megahit, and he knew that Frank Marshall could turn "Congo" into one of the most visually and technologically stunning films of the 1990s. Good writers pretty much know how they want their movies done, and they know who would be perfect to make them.

But as curious as it sounds, this seems to be a fault in his newly adapted book, "Sphere," a movie which is made by the outstanding director Barry Levinson, who did "The Natural," "Rain Man" and "Bugsy." Mr. Levinson could have been perfect in creating a movie like this, but something sidetracks him. Yes, he knows how to create good atmosphere and substantial realism in his movies, but in "Sphere," the only thing that seems to emerge successfully is the title. It is an annoying and distracting movie, where the actors lose all of their prospect for existing, and the story loses all faith in the material and gives up just as it seems to begin. To watch it is to read the book through disorganized cliff notes.

The novel, as already stated, was written by literary wiz Michael Crichton, technically as a story that dealt with the possibility of us communicating with other beings in the solar system. The book questioned the beliefs in life off of our planet, and pondered whether if we were to seek it or leave well enough alone. In simpler terms, should we play it safe or take a risk and attempt to communicate with who or what possibly exists beyond Earth?

The movie follows the same, basic structure of the book, though instead of Crichton's central themes about alien life, the movie ponders whether humans are smart enough to know the answers. Can they handle these types of situations? Can they be expected to make a decision? Better yet, can they even be expected to understand the questions? Bluntly, the characters are just dumb. If they had even the smallest evidence of life outside of Earth, they wouldn't know what to do. They are so dimwitted (generally speaking) that its laughable.

The movie opens with the discovery of an underwater spacecraft, docked at the bottom of the sea, probably for about 250-300 years. A habitat observatory is set up close by at the beginning, and while on investigation, Queen Latifah's character enters the scene. It's been a debate among critics as to whether these types of movies stereotype African American's by killing them off in the first few scenes. As soon as Queen Latifah begins her underwater investigation of the habitat, she is attacked by thousands of jellyfish. You know what happens next.

Later, we learn that inside this alien spacecraft that there is this striking, golden orb (or sphere, more appropriately) that continues to rotate even if the evidence clearly shows that no alien life is inhabiting the ship. Extensive study on the golden orb reveals that it attempts to communicate with them through the habitat's computers. Every scene of it in the picture is the same--it rotates and rotates and doesn't stop. It's only purpose is to attempt and imagine what the orb looked like in Crichton's book, and with all of these computer graphics going on in movies today, its an extensive study on how they would look if they were one solid color. Don't ask how ugly it is, because you know the answer to that one, too.

The scenes following the study are occupied by extreme and limitless discussions and speculations on what the sphere is trying to tell them They know it's extraterrestrial, but what does it want? Why has it remained active for all these years? The movie puts all of these questions into corner with the characters surrounding them; they guess and predict and speculate and ponder the meanings of this sphere again and again and again; they do it for so long that even the performances by the actors turn sour. Then, just as the movie is as dull as it can be, the climax plays out like an extreme disappointment. It reveals what we don't want to hear, what we figure we won't here, and what we think we hear but its actually something else (get it?). By the time the movie has resolved all of its character and special effects anticlimaxes, we are left with an annoying hatred for the movie's sour adaptation of Crichton's novel.

Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone are great actors, but they are in way over their heads here. Barry Levinson, as far as imagining the story on the screen, has no taste or values of Crichton's themes whatsoever in the picture. He uses the same construction but without the meaning; the same recipe, but the wrong ingredients. The special effects scenes are lifeless; the movie flows from sequence to sequence like a bad episode of "Seinfeld"; the story and plot directions are careless; the acting is unconvincing; the construction of everything is just as it shouldn't be: the complete opposite of what Crichton was trying to tell us. Instead of asking us to accept a bond of communication with alien life forms, it asks us if we are intelligent enough to understand the first question.

All is impossible to deal with. The horrible routine, the obvious special effects scenes, the resolution, the climax--everything that you'd expect to appear in someone else's movie other than Barry Levinson's. In better hope of saving his skin, he has to take this movie as a negative lapse in his career so he can hopefully redeem himself from it. Otherwise, a scar will forever remain on his filmography.

As for Mr. Crichton, don't worry about him. He's a great writer: he's probably already learned from his mistake.

1998, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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