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Terror Down Below: "Sphere" (1998) Movie Review

"Terror can fill any space."
"Terror can fill any space."

Let's travel back in time to 1998. Michael Crichton is arguably the most famous contemporary author in the world, perhaps equaled only by Stephen King and John Grisham. Film studios happily engage in bidding wars over the rights to adapt his work to the big screen ever since the release of Jurassic Park in 1993, which shattered box office records and remains to this day one of the highest grossing movies ever. Over the following years, Crichton's work would literally invade cinemas, with the releases of Rising Sun (1993), Disclosure (1994), Congo (1995) and The Lost World (1997), which were all commercially successful. Next in line would be Sphere, an adaptation of the excellent novel of the same name from 1987. Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (who had adapted Disclosure) is hired and an A-list cast and crew is assembled, backed by a huge $80,000,000 budget. Everything is pointing towards another smash but somehow things go wrong ; the film grosses only $50,000,000 and is reviled by critics. What happened? Careful: spoilers ahead.

The theatrical poster
The theatrical poster

Sphere is a novel published in 1987 and I consider it to be among Crichton's best work. It offered what was then seen as a refreshing take on a possible first contact with alien life, while managing to make the reader think AND stay on the edge of his seat. The story follows Norman Johnson, a psychologist engaged by the United States Navy, who joins a team of scientists assembled to examine a spacecraft of unknown origin discovered on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The novel begins as a science fiction story but quickly transforms into a psychollgicat thriller, developing into an exploration of the nature of the human imagination (wikipedia). Despite its quality, I was not surprised it took more than 10 years for it to be adapted on the big screen. With a lot of the action happening in the characters minds, how could a filmmaker manage to make us go through the same range of emotions without making a completely dull movie? The answer is you can't. As such, the film is filled with long exposition and dialogue scenes and I guess that turned off quite a few filmgoers. While its first half is very strong and is a pretty flawless adaptation of the source material, the film's finale is to me its biggest flaw. It is pretty confusing. Who went into the sphere and what exactly does it do? How do our protagonists escape from the underwater station? Levinson's Sphere is filled with plot holes that were well explained in the book. The film ends and we are left with too many questions, which is never a good sign.

Author Michael Crichton (1942-2008)
Author Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

The 10 year gap between the novel's release and the film version's premiere might have also played a part in its failure. By 1998, plenty of the book's ideas had lost their element of novelty. For instance, the possibility of meeting an alien life underwater had already been explored in James Cameron's The Abyss, released in 1989. The whole idea of an alien object creating visions in human minds was not even new in 1987, as it was first used in Stanislaw Lem's 1961 classic novel Solaris, which was adapted twice into films, in 1972 and 2002. In many ways, Crichton's novel could be seen as a loving homage to that other book but they are both better in litterary form as their stories are deeply philosophical ones, if not downright unfilmable (at least by blockbuster standards). As such, the movie has been called by a few critics as a rehash of better used ideas. Despite all that, Barry Levinson's film possesses plenty of qualities that should not be overlooked.

Sharon Stone & Dustin Hoffman as Beth (the biologist) & Norman (the psychologist)
Sharon Stone & Dustin Hoffman as Beth (the biologist) & Norman (the psychologist)

Sphere's cast is impressive. Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson fill the bigger roles while the supporting cast includes Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber and Queen Latifah. All actors are perfectly cast and portray their respective characters exactly as I envisioned them while reading, which is always special once you see the film version. Sharon Stone shines here, giving life to a character that struggles with insanity in a very effective way (she also looks amazing). The only complaint I could have is about Mr. Hoffman ; he often mumbles is dialogue, making it hard to understand what he says. Considering that he has the most screen time, it is problematic. Like in Jurassic Park, the most fascinating character is perhaps the mathematician, portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. He remains calm and weirdly detached from everything that is happening, which elevates the tension even more. His effective performance is surprisingly low-key and seems quite refreshing today, as Jackson is often cast as a badass action hero or over-the-top maniac. He coldly delivers the most important line of dialogue and it always sends chills down my spine:

"You see? It's curious. Ted did figure it out - time travel. And when we get back, we gonna tell everyone. How it's possible, how it's done, what the dangers are. But then why fifty years in the future when the spacecraft encounters a black hole does the computer call it an 'unknown entry event'? Why don't they know? If they don't know, that means we never told anyone. And if we never told anyone it means we never made it back. Hence we die down here. Just as a matter of deductive logic."

Samuel L. Jackson is Harry, the mathematician
Samuel L. Jackson is Harry, the mathematician

The special effects for the film still hold up quite well, with a wise mix of CGI, miniatures and animatronics. The sphere itself is completely computer animated and while that fact is obvious, there was no other way to create it. After all, it comes from another world and the only problem I have is when we see the characters go through it; I think the transition looks cheap by today's standards. The sea snake that attacks Norman is an animatronic that looks very lifelike and Queen Latifah's character is killed by CGI jellyfish in a scene that gave me nightmares when I was a kid. Movie magic at its best! Worth mentioning is the physical absence of the giant squid from the film, while he was a major part of the book. We hear him and see the damage he causes but we never actually see the monster itself. Why not? My guess would be budget restraints. That fact was highlighted in plenty of negative critics for the film but I don't think it's much of a problem; sometimes what our imagination creates for us is scarier than the real thing (or bad 90's CGI), and here I think it works in the film's favor.

Sea snake wants to say hello !
Sea snake wants to say hello !
Composer Elliot Goldenthal
Composer Elliot Goldenthal

American composer Elliot Goldenthal was hired to write the music to Sphere and what he came up with is nothing short of sublime. Goldenthal was a very prolific movie soundtrack composer in the 90's, working on big projects such as Alien 3 (1992), Interview With A Vampire (1994), Batman Forever (1995) and Michael Collins (1996). He ultimately won a well deserved Oscar for his work on Frida (2002) and has since then focused his time on writing classical music. His work on Sphere is typical Goldenthal at his best ; dissonant orchestral sounds and electronical elements meet to create a well balanced, suspenseful and at times poignantly beautiful piece of work. His style might not be for everyone as it is often strikingly different from your typical Hollywood orchestral bombastic music. Sadly, the accompanying album is much too short and plenty of great musical cues are not yet available to the public. You can listen to one of the highlights from the album down here.

"The Gift" by Elliot Goldenthal

LAST WORD

Following the commercial failure of Sphere, only two other Crichton novels would end up being adapted for the big screen as I'm writing these lines. Those projects, The 13th Warrior (1999) and Timeline (2003), would also share Sphere's disastrous reception and are likely what put an end on Chrichton's reign over Hollywood. However, the author remained extremely popular until his death in 2008 as most of his books became bestsellers. The movie remains one of director Barry Levinson's last huge studio picture as he kept working steadily on smaller features since then. Overall, I think it's a shame the film failed to convey the greatness of Crichton's fantastic and thought-provoking novel despite the obvious effort put behind the camera. Sphere is not a bad film at all ; the filmmakers simply tried to bite off more than they could chew and it shows. If you saw it and had a great time, then you should watch Stephen Soderbergh's Solaris (2002), an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's 1961 classic, which is thematically similar. If you are a die hard science-fiction fan or have read the novel on which it is based, then I would happily recommend Sphere. Otherwise, stick to the book!


Thank you for reading!

The official trailer

What do you think of "Sphere" ?

  • It's a misunderstood masterpiece !
  • It's a great sci-fi film !
  • It's just a rip-off of better stories !
  • It's completely pointless !
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