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SPHERE is more of a psychological thriller than it is a monster movie. Its story would have been far more interesting if it would have carried through on the premise of its first half – a science-fiction encounter with an interesting alien filled with unexpected twists that take us to imaginary places where we haven’t been. Instead of this, the second half of SPHERE degenerates into the same two emotions as EVENT HORIZON and other similar movies: fear and paranoia. As it is, the movie is just another violent, foul mouthed ALIEN retread with echoes of last year’s EVENT HORIZON.
(H, B, LLL, VV, S) Mild humanistic worldview with a few moral or even heroic values stressed but containing the theme that people may someday evolve into good beings worthy of wielding great power; 7 obscenities, 32 profanities (mostly mild and exclamatory) & reference to past adulterous affair; and, intense action violence including man cut in half by door, man burned to death, people attacked by strange snakes, woman killed by school of jellyfish creatures, underwater habitat attacked by giant squid, & suicide attempt.
SPHERE is a disappointing effort from Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (RAIN MAN). Levinson again teams up with his WAG THE DOG star Dustin Hoffman in this underwater science-fiction thriller from the creative mind of Michael Crichton. Although the movie starts off promisingly, it eventually becomes just another ALIEN retread, with echoes of last year’s EVENT HORIZON, which was recently named by MOVIEGUIDE as one of the worst movies of 1997.
SPHERE isn’t as bad as that particular effort, however, mostly because of its interesting characters and fine acting performances. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman plays psychologist Norman Goodman (pun intended) who heads a scientific team that goes 1020 feet underwater to explore a mysterious spacecraft which crash landed in the ocean in 1709. The government picks Goodman to head the team based on his recommendation in an old report he wrote on what should be done during the first human contact with extraterrestrial aliens. Regrettably, Goodman did not take his report seriously when he wrote it. He tells one of his team members that he only wrote the report to make money and based half his research on the work of science-fiction writers.
Joining Goodman on the team are Sharon Stone as Beth Halperin, a biochemist who shares an illicit past with Goodman; Samuel L. Jackson as Harry Adams, a skeptical mathematician; and, Liev Schreiber as Ted Fielding, an egocentric astrophysicist with a chip on his shoulder. Peter Coyote plays Barnes, the government official leading the team. Also helping the team are two female technicians.
The first part of SPHERE contains some entertaining, humorous and mostly clean dialogue between these characters as the camera follows them into their underwater habitat next to the spaceship and their first tentative exploration of the ship. The story becomes especially intriguing when the scientists discover the real identity of the ship and when they find a huge, golden alien sphere inside the ship’s dark, hermetically sealed interior. Eerie, frightening things start to happen when Jackson’s character, Harry, decides he wants to go inside the sphere, which he thinks is hollow and alive. Both he and Hoffman’s character, Norman, have a strange, silent encounter with the alien sphere, and the team begins to receive coded messages from the sphere.
Norman starts to suspect the sphere’s intentions – he thinks the alien entity has become mentally unstable because it’s been all alone for nearly 300 years, with no one with whom to communicate. Norman’s suspicions bear fruit when the two female technicians are killed in strange, unpleasant circumstances and the team’s habitat appears to be attacked by a gigantic squid. The squid is like something out of Jules Verne’s TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, a book that Harry just happens to find on the habitat and begins reading.
Director Barry Levinson focuses on the psychology of his characters in SPHERE, but there have been many similar science-fiction, thriller movies like this in the last 10 years. Unlike some of those movies, SPHERE is more of a psychological thriller than it is a monster movie. In that respect, it reminds one of the classic science-fiction tale about “monsters from the id” – FORBIDDEN PLANET.
The movie’s story would have been far more interesting if it would have carried through on the premise of its first half. SPHERE could have given us a fantastic science-fiction encounter with an interesting alien. It could have been filled with unexpected twists that take us to imaginary places where we truly haven’t been. Instead of this, the second half of SPHERE degenerates into the same two emotions as EVENT HORIZON and other similar movies: fear and paranoia. The movie suggests that human beings aren’t ready to accept the tremendous power that futuristic technology may bring, but this theme is not enough to make us care. Especially, since the movie also suggests that human beings can perhaps evolve into more benevolent creatures.
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