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With: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Peter Coyote, Queen Latifah
Written by: Paul Attanasio, Stephen Hauser, Kurt Wimmer, based on a novel by Michael Crichton
Directed by: Barry Levinson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action including some startling images
Running Time: 134
Date: 02/13/1998

Sphere (1998)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Underwater, Over Their Heads

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I find it necessary to give away some of the plot details in order to review Barry Levinson's Sphere, but I promise not to give away anything big.

Barry Levinson's Sphere starts off promisingly, with Dustin Hoffman as a psychologist who prepared a report for the Bush administration about what to do if an alien spacecraft ever landed. Now one has, and he is being called into duty, against his wildest dreams. In his report, he assembled a team of scientists; a biologist (Sharon Stone), a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson) and an astrophysicist (Liev Schreiber). Peter Coyote is the military brass who briefs them.

From there, things turn a little downhill. We have weak characterizations, shaky underwater sequences (movies like The Abyss raised the bar for those), very poor editing, and dangling plot lines. The central idea for Sphere is an intriguing one, but similar concepts have been much better executed on episodes of "Star Trek," which makes one wonder why movie writing is allowed to be so bad. Sphere was co-written by Paul Attanasio, who has Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco, two intelligent movies, to his credit. Somehow, he was lured into this project, probably under the impression that he could fix it.

The intriguing ideas in Sphere have to do with the crashed spaceship itself, and a giant sphere with a beautiful, golden surface, slightly in motion, like mercury. I thought at first that the sphere would be an egg that contained an outer space beastie, which would get free, and then systematically eat the cast, but not so. We have beasties, but they're all the underwater type. The movie does a good job revealing the plot to us in stages, but while we wait, it's terribly annoying having to sit through bad dialogue, telegraphed scenes, plotlines dropped, and scientists behaving irrationally. In any given scene, the characters conveniently forget the facts of what has happened before, so that we can have a good arguing scene. Oh boy.

I had been looking forward to the talent in this movie. I'm happy to report that Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, and Liev Schreiber (who can also be seen in Robert Benton's excellent Twilight and in Scream 2) are very good. Dustin Hoffman may have an Oscar nomination for another Levinson movie, Wag the Dog, but here he's jittery, squeaky and annoying, and almost seems to fall back on his Rain Man schtick. Peter Coyote can be a commanding actor, but he's wasted here. The other characters (including one played by Queen Latifah) are on screen just long enough to signal to us that they're beastie bait.

Director Barry Levinson seems to have found himself in that strange position that Spielberg is in, in which he must make an expensive bad movie in order to be allowed to make a cheap good movie (Wag the Dog). He now lives in Marin County, and Sphere was shot in the Bay Area. Maybe being away from Hollywood has sharpened his senses, and he realized that it's worth it in order to make that one good movie. Unfortunately, Sphere is the bad one.

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