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A look back at SPHERE

June 3, 2016

Sphere kind of came and went in 1998. It was a big-budget production—and still looks it—that got poor reviews and lost money, even counting the international box office. That was the life cycle for many movies before the streaming revolution. Today, it seems most movies are counted on not only to earn most of their ticket stubs internationally, but to find their audiences over an extended period of time through streaming and home media.

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Image courtesy fanart.tv

Sphere was not something I saw when it had its theatrical run but, always the sucker for science fiction, I couldn’t help queuing it up recently when I saw that it would soon expire from Netflix. Those expiration dates are never really set in stone, but if you’re reading this, then the aforementioned expiration date (June 1, 2016) has probably passed.

Adapted from Michael Chrichton’s novel of the same name, Sphere, embraces the feel of a novelistic adaptation. The slow build-up is paced just right for getting to know the characters and feeling a distinct sense of wonder. There are even chapter headings. I don’t have a good answer for why some movies choose to disrupt the narrative with title cards announcing new chapters. It probably works really well somewhere, but I can’t think of an example that isn’t distracting, and in this case, the distraction doesn’t serve much purpose other than reminding us, “hey, don’t forget that this is based on a Michael Chrichton novel.”

The dialogue is dense and perhaps a bit overcooked. It even reminded me of Aliens in that way, but without the satire. I haven’t read the novel, but I’d be interested to see just how much was lifted straight from Chrichton’s pages, and how the ending was adapted. More on that later. As interesting as the script occasionally gets, by the end, it is mostly a crutch and bogged down in explanatory dialogue.

That said, the production value is first rate. The widescreen cinematography is very strong, as is the musical score. Directed by Barry Levinson (Diner and Rain Man), and starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to watch the first half or so of this movie and expect that the ending will take you somewhere worthwhile. Levinson creates a palpable and foreboding atmosphere. Only problem is, the ending is every bit as ridiculous as the set-up is promising.

As for that set-up, a team of scientists: a marine biologist (Sharon Stone), a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson), an astrophysicist (Liev Schreiber), and a psychologist (Hoffman), are flown out to a base in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The base was built around an alien spacecraft discovered on the ocean floor. Upon entering the craft, the team deduces that, somehow, this craft was manned by humans rather than aliens, and they discover a mysterious sphere of unknown substance and origin. That’s when the weird stuff starts happening.

I’m not going to get too far into the nuts and bolts of the ending, because (a) it’s really absurd, and (b) I don’t want to spoil it on the off chance that someone who reads this and has a high tolerance for whacky nonsense decides to track this flick down. If you don’t want to to ruin anything, skip the next two paragraphs.

Spoilers Begin

Basically, the crew is attacked by all manner of deep-sea dangers including a giant squid, a jellyfish swarm, and sea snakes. They eventually determine that the attacks were manifestations of their collective subconscious. Their fears were made real and projected by the powers of the sphere. Where my problems with all this begin with the determination that the manifestations came from those who had “entered” the sphere. We only see one character actually enter the sphere, and despite evidence to the contrary, we are led to believe that, actually, they all entered the sphere. I’m pretty sure this flies in the face of what the film had established at that point, and that makes the supposed big reveal pretty frustrating. And that’s not even the ending, which actually gets way worse, it’s just the part where the film parted ways with its promising set-up.

Interestingly, this reminds me a bit of one of Sphere‘s contemporaries, Event Horizon (1997), directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Another visual stunner, Horizon’s ending kind of threw people for a loop. I’ll save the full recap for another time, but the gist is, the crew investigating a spacecraft (named the Event Horizon) find themselves in a macabre situation, not entirely unlike the protagonists of Sphere. The “twist” that none of the characters see coming is that the Event Horizon is possessed and has turned evil. Yup. The ship itself is evil. They are trapped on an evil spaceship.

Spoilers Over

Now, Event Horizon has actually earned a bit of a critical re-evaluation in the 18-plus years since its release, even though that “twist” is beyond preposterous. On one hand, it’s disappointing when the story gets too “out there,” because it can take viewers out of the movie. On the other hand, it’s probably best to be at least somewhat surprising, even if it’s in a head-scratching way, than it is to be contradictory. Isn’t it? Event Horizon reaches a certain level of stupidity, but there’s an innocence and straightforwardness you can kind of roll with (see also M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village). Sphere, meanwhile, leads you down one path, reverses field completely, and robs you of any payoff that generally comes with a twist ending.

I guess I’m not a big fan of movies that play “gotcha” with the audience. It’s one thing to engineer a mechanically-sound plot twist or surprise ending, but it’s another thing entirely to show the audience something and then blatantly contradict it later. This strategy certainly leads to a surprise, but not the good kind. While Sphere retains its sense of mystery through most of the runtime, it’s not a sustainable mystery, precisely because of such “gotcha” tactics. This leads me to believe that the shortcomings are mostly screenplay-based, and less a reflection of Levinson’s direction.

The three lead performances, plus Schreiber and Peter Coyote, are all pretty strong, Samuel L. Jackson in particular. He probably gets the lion’s share of the good lines, and it’s a really good look for him. He is much more tamped down here than in his higher profile roles, but he still conveys an intellectual intensity that isn’t easily forgettable. Also, keep an eye our for Queen Latifah, James Pickens Jr., and Huey Lewis (of all people) in smaller roles.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Sphere develops something of a cult following comprising those willing to see the shoddy ending through rose-colored glasses. I’m not sure there’s quite enough here to warrant a full re-evaluation, a la Event Horizon, but Sphere remains an impressively realized vision. My personal hangups aside, Sphere is a vintage science fiction misfire that should still be of interest to science fiction fans who have either never seen it or forgotten about it.

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