directed by Barry Levinson
Warner Brothers, 1998

When Sphere was previewed and the stars interviewed, Dustin Hoffman was interviewed by a young female reporter who commented on his looking "ripped" for this movie. This started a laughing fit on the part of the two that became the highlight of any interview done in conjunction with the advertising. It even made it to Talk Soup, prompting a hilarious sketch involving John Henson, Dustin Hoffman and John Lovitz. What I just described to you was the only interesting thing to come out of the movie.

Sphere was supposed to be a sci-fi thriller, but what it ended up as was uncategorizable. The movie starred Dustin Hoffman as a psychologist, Sharon Stone as a marine biologist, Samuel L. Jackson as a mathematician and Peter Coyote as the navy commander leading the mission. Here's the premise -- an alien ship is discovered on bottom of ocean, still intact, and a team is gathered to investigate. Sometime before, the U.S. government had asked Hoffman to come up with an alien first-contact scenario, which is used for the first time in this situation. Hoffman basically made stuff up just to get the money, only now is chosen as a member of the team. Why this is important I couldn't tell you. This is just one part of the story that doesn't make sense, and it's not the first. The mathematician is brought in to facilitate communication, the biologist because of the environment, and there's a physicist to explain all the techie stuff. They bother to ask Coyote why he's involved in the team. If there's a god in heaven, actors the caliber of Hoffman and Jackson were smacking themselves in the head after that bit of dialogue.

Moving on, they reach the alien ship, and spend their time in a underwater lab when not stomping around the ship. While exploring the alien vessel, Hoffman and Stone discover dead human bodies that suffered blows to the head, indicating murder. They come to the conclusion that the ship is from 300 years in the future. A computer log shows that the last thing the ship did was enter a black hole. That's when the gigantic sphere is discovered. The next day, Jackson's character sneaks over to the ship to investigate the sphere and collapses, prompting Hoffman to come rescue him. A reflection of both characters emerges from sphere's interior and floats to the top. Confused yet? After this, the movie goes downhill. Fast.

The ship makes contact with the humans in a number-based language. The physicist cracks the code, allowing them to communicate. Jackson spends most of the movie wandering around the ship reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and we learn he's afraid of squids. One of the navy crew members leaves the ship to investigate something, only to die when attacked by hundreds of jellyfish. A creature, which turns out to be a giant squid, attacks the lab. After much running around and screaming, everyone dies except for Stone, Hoffman, and Jackson. The "alien" acts like a young child who didn't get his daily cookie allowance, and admits to sending the squid to attack them.

Now here's where the fun begins. (Before I go on, I must apologize for the details I'm about to release. Usually, I try not to blow the endings to movies I review, but I feel no one in their right mind should view this movie, so I'll make an exception in this case.)

It turns out that Jackson has something to do with the attacks. See, he's afraid of squid, and he's the mathematician, so when he dreams, the sphere creates the squid from this thoughts and communicates in numbers. The physicist got the code wrong when deciphering the language, because the "alien" was actually using Jackson's character name. Hoffman -- the psychologist, mind you -- is the one to discover this. However, it comes out that Hoffman has also been affected by the sphere, as he is deathly afraid of jellyfish, which is why the crew member dies from an attack by them. But wait -- it also is discovered that Stone's character has gone to the alien ship, and she has the ability as well. This causes mass paranoia on the part of all three.

They deduce that the ship picked up the sphere, and gave all the crew members this ability. The crew's worst fears come to reality, and they eventually start killing each other off. The last one to die dreams up the black hole, which (another never explained plot point) miraculously sends the ship hurtling back in time AND back to Earth, where it crashes into the ocean. So they decide to escape the lab before they die, because Stone set up a bomb to blow up the alien ship. After making their escape despite their attempts to kill themselves off, they decide that no one should have this power and make each other forget what happened, which sends the sphere hurtling back into space.

There are so many things wrong with this movie that it's impossible to list them all. The only way to possibly explain this movie is to compare it to the very end of Monty Python's Holy Grail. You know, where the army led by King Arthur attacks the Grail Tower, only to be stopped by the police and arrested. You get the sense that Sphere had three different writers -- a science fiction writer, a horror writer and a psychologial thriller writer. And that the three never talked about what they were doing. Kinda like those writing exercises where someone starts a story and passes it off.

And the unfortunate thing about all of it was that the movie had some interesting potential. The time travel/return to Earth could have been explained, why the sphere affected people the way it did, some more background behind the characters to explain their actions, and so much more. And forget about the story, the abilities of actors the caliber of Dustin Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson were completely wasted. Why they decided to do this load is similar to asking why Sean Connery did Highlander. Of course, Sphere will never attain the cult status of Highlander. But in the end, that's a good thing. Not even Sean Connery could have saved this movie. Avoid it like the plague.

[ by Timothy Keene ]

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