Spoilers might be casted in geometrical shapes because reasons.
I’ve been anxious to return to the Sci-Fi genre and watching a couple of classics. This one belongs to the We-Are-Not-Alone sub-genre with one additional and unfortunately common outcome: the payoff is weak. There are great movies about alien contact out there, but why this one falls short is sort of the reason why I decided to review it. Great premises abound, but great executions are scarce. Analyzing why is the reason why I was looking forward to revisiting it.
The first thing that Director Barry Levinson seems to communicate with Sphere (1998) is that he’s sort of pigeonholed himself in a movie that has to produce a sphere and literally orbit his script around it. The fact that it’s extraterrestrial is sort of incidental. The fact that it is underwater is a bit of a background and the plot device by which the characters are stuck together. For better or worse so are we.
Dustin Hoffman plays Norman Goodman, a psychologist. Yes, that’s he’s actual name. He’s the normal good guy and it’s that level of subtlety. Completing the team are marine biologist Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), mathematician Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), astrophysicist Ted Fielding (Liev Shreiber) and US Navy Captain Harold Barnes (Peter Coyote).
It took me around five minutes before I was completely annoyed by Hoffman. Liev Shreiber, who plays astrophysicist Ted Fielding, is supposed to have the annoying asshole role. However, Shreiber is truly acting and I find his perfectly annoying character endearing somehow. Hoffman is acting like the lovable character who we should find endearing and that ends annoying the heck out of me. Does that make any sense? Doesn’t help that when Dr. Goodman has to talk to someone (often someone that doesn’t want to talk to him) he has to repeat the other character’s name a hundred times.
Very early on, Norman confesses separately to both Harry and Beth that the reason they’re all here is a report that he wrote a long time ago about assembling the perfect team to deal with an extraterrestrial encounter, and that he really just winged the report and just threw names at random. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to identify / empathize with the good doctor for taking a subject so lightly. For the record, I don’t. This wasn’t a good start.
Meanwhile, the movie seems to expect us to be awed by what we could be about to see. The music score certainly thinks so, as crescendos rise every time we’re supposed to be thrilled, scared or surprised. It’s not that the visual effects have aged badly, it’s that they’re hardly even there so it seems the music must hint at the reaction expected. Despite what the score wants you to feel, the film never manages to build up enough suspense to keep us there.
The story wants to be a lot of things, but I guess mystery is the one at the top. There’s a spaceship that appears to have been there for centuries but it is apparently from a distant future. The sphere appears to be alien. An entity tries to talk to them through numbers in the computer screen. Harry disappears while looking at the sphere and seems to be extremely happy when he reappears again. An underwater monster seems to be lurking about. You have enough trouble trying to figure out what the movie wants to be to be worried about what the sphere is.
There’s a particular scene in which Norman and Harry are accusing Beth of leaving her post that must be one of the most patronizing examples of a man telling a woman that she’s having a psychotic break that I’ve ever seen. While Stone’s character is calmly explaining that something weird is going on, Hoffman’s supposedly expert psychologist categorically concludes she’s mental.
There are some scenes with sci-fi “flavour”, but the closest that the movie ever comes to asking a big question is when the three surviving characters discover they can manifest stuff out of their own imagination and realize they’ve been doing it subconsciously. At that point, we’re in a bit of a dream where nothing seems real and to raise the stakes a bomb ends up about to go off. It feels a little bit sort of a movie where the writers and the director are literally flinging everything at the wall and seeing if something sticks.
Recommended only as a learning exercise for filmmakers and armchair movie buffs that like movie autopsies. It feels like a failed experiment rather than a movie done badly. It collects so many premises from better movies where psychological drama heightens the tension. Instead, none of the premises of alien contact, underwater horror, psychological thriller in a constrained space, time travel, superpowers, drama and mystery ever gets anywhere and the character interactions feel shallow. The big mystery, if you want one to solve, is why nothing ever takes off or gains any depth.
That will do for now.