|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 14 July 1998|
The DVD release of 'Sphere' has a few welcome additions to the theatrical version. The "making of" short is a nifty bonus and the audio track with Dustin Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson is agreeable, with a few interesting revelations (Hoffman says that at least one of the expository confrontations he and Sharon Stone have together was improvised). The cinematography is often dark as most of the film takes place in an underwater environment, but it is consistently sharp, with some impressive imagery. The soundtrack, both ambient and musical, has great echoing effects, particularly in Chapter 21. The film gives provides a good workout for the home system and is more than satisfying on the technical front.
Narratively, 'Sphere' starts out smart, savvy and entertaining. Directed by Barry Levinson and scripted by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio from Michael Crichton's novel, the film follows a team of reluctant scientists (what they're all doing on the project is a good, if improbable, joke) as they spend several days in an ocean-bottom dwelling while investigating mysterious sphere that appears to have crashed into the sea from outer space 300 years ago. But if the sphere has indeed been underwater for three centuries, how can there be skeletons of an American space-flight crew aboard? Worse, the sphere seems to be inhabited by an intelligent entity who seems a little too happy about having friends.
Perhaps no solution could live up to the intriguing puzzle that initially confronts us and the erudite but baffled characters, but when we find out what's really going on, the finale feels like a cheat. Levinson, the writers, and the cast provide us with much more engaging, articulate and dimensional characters than are usually found in this genre, but after awhile, they become overwhelmed by the plot mechanics.
It's one thing for filmmakers to bring a fresh eye to the science-fiction/horror genre, but it's another for them to misunderstand the genre's requirements. A startling omission here concerns the attack by a "sea monster" on the submerged habitat, where we see the effects of the beast's depredations but not the creature itself. In a film like 'Sphere,' this begs all the wrong questions. No, the movie isn't about a sea monster, but this is not an instance where letting our imaginations do the work pays off. 'Sphere' sets out to scare us, then starts playing with its own rules, until by the end it seems to lose its shape. It's a shame to see so much good work trail off into such a bland climax.