Sphere comes from a long line of science fiction motion pictures from the late Michael Crichton’s catalog of novels. And it makes sense too when you consider that his material was the inspiration behind the blockbuster Jurassic Park films, television series ER, and the Michael Douglas thriller Disclosure. Of course fans of MC’s novels are aware of the strange reality that not all of his books translate to film so smoothly. Among the sinkers; Congo, The 13th Warrior (Eater’s of the Dead), and the disastrous Timeline. Keeping this in mind, it is always a wise idea to approach MC-based films with a bit of skepticism. Fortunately Sphere leans closer to the Jurassic Park side of solid science fiction filmmaking, if even not a perfect translation of all of the potential contained within the book of the same name.
Sphere tells the tale of a team of various scientists and scholars sent in to investigate a massive 300-year-old alien spacecraft discovered resting on the ocean floor. Pacing is quite brisk and, like the book, wastes little time in getting the proverbial wheels turning on the intrigue-portion of the prose (which really is both incarnations of this work’s primary hook).
Set mainly in a claustrophobic underwater habit, Sphere manages to pack a whole lot of Hollywood heavy hitters into a confined area: Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone, Liev Schreiber and the slightly miscast Queen Latifah to mention a few.
Trying to review this picture as an action-adventure wouldn’t come close to doing it the justice viewing it as a psychological thriller would and I was acutely aware of this reality going into the film as a longtime fan of the novel. In that regard it delivers, in fact I was actually surprised at how faithful the first ¾ of the movie are to the book- nearly scene for scene! Director Barry Levinson does a very admirable job of creating and capturing a suspenseful mood that inspires as much awe and wonder as it does fear or terror.
Considering that 1998 is what we now consider the very earliest stages of Hollywood’s collective paradigm shift from practical effects to computer generated imaging, the film deserves credit for imagery that still holds up incredibly well even by today’s standards. While in no danger of being called flashy or heavily visually effected, the film certainly relies more heavily on interesting storytelling than it does eye candy.
What about that story, you wonder? Well it does play with some pretty cool concepts: Time travel, alien intelligence, mental projection, black holes, and the primitive nature of the human condition. And like all Crichton works, it does so with frighteningly realistic scientific backing.
However, all is not perfect in the film translation, namely the conclusion of all things. Not that it is fundamentally flawed beyond enjoyment, but rather it feels a little bit rushed (a feeling confirmed by filmmakers in documentaries about the project). As it stands it works, albeit with a bit of post-viewing discussion necessary about the whys and hows surrounding the final few sequences. Things certainly could have been explained better in my opinion, however, especially considering the amount of time spent and depth established in the characters leading up to the all-important ending. The novel manages to outshine the motion picture in this regard thanks to a slightly clearer explanation of the plot’s closing stages.
I’m big on comparing films like this to other contemporary works, if for nothing else to provide a bit of a framework for potential viewers to draw from when considering purchasing, watching, or even just renting the film in question. That said, Sphere would likely appeal to fans of James Cameron’s The Abyss, or perhaps even space-set science fiction pictures such as Event Horizon, Sunshine, or Supernova.
Calling it a masterpiece may be a bit too generous with praise but at the same time I find very little about this film that I would personally attempt to correct or improve upon were it mine to tweak (save a bit more precise ending). In all, solid science fiction that, thanks to discount bins everywhere can be had for next to nothing. The DVD even contains a nice chunk of special features including a featurette with the special effects guys and a full-length audio commentary with actors Samuel L. Jackson and a mumbling Dustin Hoffman. Just be forewarned, I was unable to access the menu to view such goodies on my DVD player except by having fast forwarded through the end credits- Points off for the DVD authoring, sure, but no sense missing out on an otherwise solid piece of sci-fi over that.