Monday, July 23, 2012

Sphere (1998)

Title: Sphere (1998)

Director: Barry Levinson

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone, Live Schreiber, Queen Latifah


Some movies just fall flat no matter the amount of talent that’s behind them. That being said, I wouldn’t go as far as calling Sphere a failed attempt. In my opinion Sphere was simply not all that it could have been, still it ends up being an interesting film. Dustin Hoffman himself said that he had some issues in regards to the film, he felt it was not finished, that it needed to be worked on a bit more and I have to say that I agree with him because the film feels like a couple of short films strung together, without smooth transitions from moment to moment. This is probably the reason why they decided to divide the film with title cards that read “The Sphere”, “The Spaceship”, “The Monster” and so on. Speaking of ‘The Monster’ what a disappointment; but more on that later.

Sphere tells the story of how the U.S. Government has found an abandoned spaceship resting deep within the darkest pits of the ocean. They quickly go ahead and gather a team of experts that includes a biologist, a physicist, a mathematician and a psychiatrist to deal with a possible alien encounter. But they don’t know if there’s aliens on the ship, they are simply speculating. Their purpose is to find out what this mysterious spaceship is all about, to take that first step, those first risks. They soon discover that the ship holds an ominous golden sphere inside of it, but what is it? What does it do? Who controls it?

So basically, Sphere attempts to be the kind of science fiction film I love the most: the philosophical science fiction film. This is not a science fiction film with light saber battles or the U.S. military shooting their guns at little green men, no, this film attempts to be something deeper and more thought provoking; which is always a plus for me.  Gotta love it when a film tries to go deeper then your regular dumb flick. Sphere actually wants to talk about important themes that I’m sure were better explored on the Michael Crichton novel on which the film is based on; I never read this book so my review is solely based on the film itself. I say Sphere is an ‘attempt at a deep film’ because I felt it didn’t fully get there in my opinion. It does ask some interesting questions, kind of in the same way that Prometheus (2012) did and I enjoyed that about it. In fact, it can be argued that this film comments on the nature of religion and the illusion behind it all. The use of fear to control the masses; the use of a book to bring our fears to life; I of course enjoyed that about the film.  Sphere starts out pretty cool because it achieves a level of mystery to the sphere that was reminiscent of the mystery revolving around the ‘Monolith’ in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), unfortunately this film presents us with a promising premise…only to never truly deliver on the spectacle that we as an audience see on the horizon. This is always a letdown: the film that doesn’t deliver the goods.

The problem with this film is that it’s afraid to be what it is supposed to be. It’s like one of those vampire movies that is afraid to use the word ‘vampire’ for fear of sounding cheesy. Sphere is a brainy sci-fi film, but it is also has horror elements to it. Sadly, this is a monster movie that is afraid to embrace its monstrous side. If this is a monster flick, then by all means, show us some monsters! The film uses Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a plot device, a character loves to read this book but is scared of reading the ending because it’s “too scary”. Through the use of the book, the film hints that we might be seeing a huge squid attacking the good guys, we hear the squid, we see it on a computer monitor, but we never truly see the creature. What the film does is tease us to death; it shows us everything but the monster. Can you imagine 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) without the scene where giant squid attacks the Nautilus? One gets the impression that the filmmakers behind Sphere didn’t have the money to show the monster? This wouldn’t surprise me; the film was in hiatus for a while. In fact, while this film was in hiatus, Levinson and Hoffman went off and did a whole other film called Wag the Dog (1997); which by the way was released before Sphere was! This gives you a pretty good idea of how long the making of Sphere was put off for; which of course points towards production problems, creative differences and a slew of other things that can slow a film down.    

A scene from Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Sphere has many similarities with films like Leviathan (1989), Deep Star Six (1989), Event Horizon (1997) and James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989). Let’s count the similarities between Sphere and The Abyss shall we? The film takes place in an underwater rig, with a small crew who end up meeting an alien life form. We get a strong willed woman in a lead role. The crew cannot resurface because there’s a huge storm going on above, a plot device seen in almost all of these underwater monster films. Somebody goes whacko at some point. And basically, Sphere was shot in similar fashion then The Abyss was, with giant water tanks and sets built on them. Extreme similarities can also be found with P.W. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997), because it also deals with a sphere that augments our fears. Anderson’s style of making films is he steals ideas from his favorite filmmakers and authors and reworks them, then spews them out as if they were his own. He is the Tarantino of science fiction. I’m thinking Anderson read Crichton’s novel and then did his own version of it. Typical Anderson behavior. Sphere came out one year after Event Horizon, it almost feels as if Levinson saw Event Horizon and said let’s do Crichton’s book the right way, let’s make an intelligent film! Which would explain why Sphere puts a lot of its emphasis on philosophical ideas. This is one of  Sphere’s strongest points, the philosophical angle. It asks questions like: Are we ready for the secrets of the universe? Are we ready to know it all? Or are we better off not knowing? Are we just babies in this universe? Are we a race of infants?

What I enjoyed about Event Horizon is that it is a film dealing with these phenomenal cosmic themes, like black holes and traveling to other dimensions through them, but it does it in a highly entertaining way, plus it never forgets that it is a horror movie. It didn’t forget to have some fun with its themes. Sphere needed a little more of that entertainment value seen in Event Horizon to it. Why shy away from showing the monster? I’m willing to bet that this films disappointing box office performance was due to audiences feeling cheated. Audiences were expecting a spectacle or a monster movie (or both) and what they got was Stone, Hoffman and Jackson playing scientists talking about the ultimate knowledge and the secrets of the universe; which is cool if you enjoy philosophical conversations, which I do, but if you don’t you’ll probably think this is a boring film, or that the film cheated you. If you want some spectacle, this movie does little in the way of giving it to you, find it somewhere else. For some reason, opportunities to give a little grandeur to the proceedings are thrown away and shown in a hurry, basically, the film feels like it was rushed; this is something I find surprising coming from such an accomplished director as Levinson, I guess his forte was never science fiction or the production problems ended up bringing the film down. Bottom line is that Sphere had potential, but wasn’t given the time and dedication needed to make a truly special film.

Rating: 3 out of 5 


João Neto said...

Nice review.

I read the book before seeing the movie, and the book was very good.
That's not so unusual (besides The Shining, I don't recall right now a movie better than the book) but it didn't help when I compared one with the other.


ps: oh, 2001 was also a better movie. But Kubrick was always a special case :-)

Franco Macabro said...

Im curious about the book now, this always happens to me, now I have to read the book to compare. Of course 2001 is a superior film, Kubrick's films were always something special.

Thanks for commenting!

Elwood Jones said...

I was pretty surprised with this one, especially as despite being heavy on thought also features a couple of surprises which caught me off guard like the jellyfish or the human barbeque scene, which I really didn't expect to see. It's worth watching at least once and is one of the better under water sci-fi movies, but I would still choose "The Abyss" over this one.

Also thought I'd let you know that I have awarded you the "Liebster Award" for constantly having an interesting opinion on the films you review and generally making us all think abit more about the films we watch.

Franco Macabro said...

I'm trying to remember the "human bbq" scene your referring too but nothing comes to mind! But the Jellyfish scene was pretty decent.

Agree, The Abyss is way superior to this one, it's more epic and has that feeling of watching a spectacle, something that this film sorely missing.

Thanks for the award Elwood, much appreciated and I'm glad you find my reviews interesting, I enjoy analyzing the themes in films, what they are really trying to say underneath their entertainment.

Thanks for reading Elwood!

Elwood Jones said...

No Probs!

"The Human BBQ" scene in question without spoiling it too much for anyone yet to see it, is when one of the characters is trapped under a bunch of falling boxes, with their face on a grill, while a gas tank explodes is pretty special.


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