Originally written for The Occidental.
Are you one of the many people mourning the lack of intellectual sci-fi films coming out of Hollywood lately? If so, cheer up and go see Sphere. It’s got a simple plot, great acting, strong characters, and one of the most frightening antagonists this year. And it’s more about thinking than blowing things up. It may not be for the faint of heart, but both hard-core sci-fi fans and thrill-seekers will enjoy it.
The basic story is simplicity itself: a craft of some sort has been discovered at the bottom of the ocean, and a team of experts has been assembled to investigate it. The team consists of Dr. Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman), a psychologist; Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), a biochemist; Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), a mathematician; and Ted Fielding (Leiv Schreiber), an astrophysicist, and is headed by the mysterieous Barnes (Peter Coyote), who is apparently from a secret branch of the government. At first, the craft appears to be alien in origin, but it is soon established to be not only terrestrial, but American. The next surprise is its cargo: a giant, mercurial sphere. When a cyclone strands the team underwater with no communications, they find themselves alone with the strange artifact — which soon begins showing signs of a powerful intelligence. Pretty straightforward, right? It certainly is — but it allows for many complications and tensions to keep the audience guessing. Like the main characters (which include an astrophysicist), it’s a smart movie, and while it’s not perfect, it comes pretty darn close.
One definite advantage Sphere has is the quality of its acting. Samuel L. Jackson is already known for his ability to play violent philosophers (like his character in Pulp Fiction), but here he takes out the violence and simply lets his intellegence show. Harry is a brilliant mathematician, and Jackson makes you believe in his incredible ability to understand numbers. Dustin Hoffman is well established as a brilliant actor, and his performance here is no different. Norman may be an expert psychologist, but there are plenty of things he doesn’t understand, and Hoffman’s not afraid to let that vulnerability show. Sharon Stone is likewise excellent, although her character drove me a little crazy (Michael Crichton is apparently unable to write strong women who are also capable and self-sufficient). The surprise in the cast (at least, to those unfamiliar with his work) is Liev Schreiber. His Ted is a smart, but self-conscious, astrophysicist; uncertain of his abilities but unquestionably brilliant. Schreiber’s layered performances is one of the many joys in the film.
Sphere isn’t a particularly special-effects-intensive film. It was shot underwater, so the underwater scenes are real. The effects there are, however, are excellent. The sphere itself looks awe-inspiring rather than artificial, and in one scene, jellyfish that were actually fake looked amazingly real. In a film like this, it’s important that everything appear real, or the spell and the audience’s concentration is broken.
The one area in the film that needs work the most is the music. In most of the scenes it’s fine, but in several it is very overdone. If you can get around it, though, the rest of the movie is excellent.
So what’s the bottom line? Sphere is a tight, smart, sci-fi thriller. If you’re looking for another Deep Rising or Alien you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for a chance to see a movie that makes you think, you’ll like it.