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Sphere
1998 - PG-13 - 134 Mins.
Director: Barry Levinson
Producer: Barry Levinson
Written By: Kurt Wimmer
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber, Queen Latifah and Huey Lewis
Review by: John Ulmer
   
"Sphere" is a rather faithful adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel about a team of scientists who venture to the floor of the South Pacific Ocean in order to investigate the apparent crash-landing of a colossal space craft. There is a catch, however: It has been there for 288 years, despite its futuristic modeling.

After the crew journeys to the bottom of the ocean and board the ship, they realize that it is an American vessel. A trash dispenser is labeled in English. The remains of the bodies on board are those of humans. The last computer log entry, marked "Unknown Event," reveals that the year the spaceship crashed was in 2044. "I don't know what's weirder to believe right now," says Beth (Sharon Stone) to Norman (Dustin Hoffman), "that it would have crashed in the 1700s or 2044."

So begins the setup for an intense, mysterious, and "surprisingly humorous" (Daily Mail) movie that takes a great cast and actually leads them somewhere worthwhile. Norman is a psychiatrist who assembled a hoax briefing titled "ULF," which contained procedures to follow in the event of a possible alien invasion. Norman never considered the fact that the briefing may become a reality, and explains this to Harry (Samuel L. Jackson) once they are aboard their colony far below the surface of the ocean above them. Now, with a storm forming overhead, Norman and his crew are abandoned, left to themselves under the ocean until the storm passes.

What they find inside the space craft is startling: A giant, gold spherical object that seems to be alive. It reflects the images of those it wants to. And when Harry vanishes into the sphere, then reappears later, Norman considers the fact that they may be up against an alien life form.

Soon attacks on the ship begin, all very well paced and frantically filmed. There is the introduction of the giant squid, which stalks Norman and his crew outside of their habitat on two occasions, and is delved into more deeply in the superior book.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times declared that Michael Crichton is "for people who think they're too good for normal science-fiction." Wrong. I very much doubt he has actually read any Michael Crichton novel, perhaps any further than a few pages. What Michael Crichton brings to the genre (and what has established him as the most statistically popular science-fiction author alive) is his uncanny ability to take complete control of the reader and send him to another world. "Jurassic Park" is a fabulous piece of entertainment, but the novel is even better; I started reading it and simply couldn't put it down.

Another thing that Crichton does, and what makes his work far more believable than other authors', is how he inserts facts and scientific methods into his manuscript, convincing us that what we are reading could indeed happen. Crichton somehow makes the most ridiculous of scenarios seem scarily realistic.

"Sphere" is one of my favorite Crichton novels. It is not necessarily fast-paced, but feels as if it were. Once you start reading, you just can't stop.

The movie is a pretty good imagining of the events depicted in the novel. The film was directed by Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson ("Rain Man," "Wag the Dog"), whose collaboration with Dustin Hoffman has turned out some very good films (at least one of which was a masterpiece). With "Sphere" he shows us that he is able to handle new material. This is not the sort of project that Levinson would normally be involved with - it seems more in the vein of James Cameron - but he pulls it off.

The movie's dark style is borrowed from an assortment of films, including "Alien," "Aliens," "The Abyss," and "Event Horizon" (a film, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, that ripped off its plot no less). I am not a very big fan of Cameron's "The Abyss," as much as I admire him as a director. I prefer "Sphere." I find it far more interesting and, to be honest, not as boring. Both films have silly endings but "Sphere's" is remarkably better. (Like you weren't about to throw an object at the TV screen out of anger during the end sequence of "The Abyss"?)

"Sphere" was heavily criticized upon its release in 1998 by many critics. I don't think that's very fair. The movie has its flaws, for sure, but for the most part it challenged me to probe deeper into its plot, and it managed to somehow transfer the addictive nature of the novel onto celluloid. It has a great cast (Hoffman is the perfect embodiment of Norman for anyone who has read the book) and the movie evokes the feelings of a smart B-movie on a grander scale.

Although many people view "Sphere" as a disappointment as large as the titular object itself, I consider it to be a worthy and unique film experience that is completely satisfying and enjoyable. I guess that's just me. Don't let me get in your way of hating it.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

 
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