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Tonight's Feature Presentation

SPHERE (1998)

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Coyote, Queen Latifah, Liev Schrieber

Written By: Stephen Hauser, Paul Attanasio, Kurt Wimmer (adaptation), Michael Crichton (novel)

Directed By: Barry Levinson

The Short Version

Another Michael Crichton book hits the big screen.

Sphere flopped when it got there, too.

This movie has a great cast with no chemistry.

Dustin Hoffman considered the movie unfinished when it was released; he’s got a point.

Sphere is tepid background noise at best that was pretty well doomed from the start.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


It’s shaped like a sphere!  And the processed stuff inside is famous for its holes.

Pairs Well With...


Diet Coke is actually important in the book, and if you’re going to mix it, light rum tends to work.  Besides, as far as mixed drinks go, this one’s pretty tepid stuff.

“If this translation is right, this alien sounds like an idiot.”

“That's something to consider: a stupid alien.  Well, they must have them.”

Like many a voracious reader, I went through a Michael Crichton phase, and as such, I ended up reading many of his books before they got turned into movies.  “Sphere” happened to be one of them.

As you might expect, the book is way better than the movie.

With that said, the book isn’t one of Crichton’s best to begin with.  The ideas are interesting enough and it’s quick reading popcorn (I find it interesting that some classify this as a “young adult” book), but by the time I got to the end, I was less than wowed.  (That it’s essentially a retooled version of “The Andromeda Strain” with shades of Stanislaw Lem is something that I just let pass.)  No, the book wasn’t bad by any means , but of all of Crichton’s works that I’d read at the time, I could only think of one less ready for the screen than “Sphere.”  (And as it turns out, someone actually did adapt “A Case of Need;” they just called it The Carey Treatment.)

But hey, after the huge splash made by of Jurassic Park, everything that hadn’t already been done was fair game.  Eventually, “Sphere” had its number come up, and so with a big name director and blockbuster cast at the ready, Sphere was put into production with a quick turnaround deadline.

It’s an age-old question in the world of business (which is of course what Hollywood is): do you want it good, or do you want it next week?  The studio wanted it next week, so I suppose that we’re lucky we got what we did, though frankly, I think Sphere was already doomed to tepidity in pre-production.  But let’s pause for a moment to have a peek at our story now, shall we?

Like The Andromeda Strain, Sphere begins with a group of intellectuals being brought together as a crisis team that no one actually thought would ever be put into action.  In this case, the crisis at hand is the discovery of a gigantic alien spacecraft at the bottom of the ocean.  Based on the coral growth around it, the government estimates that it must have crashed over 300 years ago, but that’s all they know.  They still need to find out a lot more about it before they even think about going public… or going in hot.  Who are they gonna call?  Why, the designated Alien First Contact team, of course!

The fact that the makeup of the team was outlined by its de facto head, Dr. Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman, Billy Bathgate), almost as a joke for a quick government paycheck doesn’t matter to anyone now that the spaceship is here, and so he and the rest of the brain trust are going down.  Once they arrive at the wreck, they’ll run into more than a few surprises, including a strangely compelling sphere…

Find any truly competent manager, and he or she will tell you that the first key to the success of any project is to get the right people on board from the start.  For me, that’s what dooms Sphere to mediocrity even before the cameras rolled.  The complex look at dark questions of human nature, horror psychology, and the various other twists of this story are just not the sort of material best suited for the director who brought us Toys and Rain Man.  These are questions better approached by an “out of the box” mind like that of Darren Aronofsky or David Lynch or, thinking forward a bit, Christopher Nolan.  It may read like popcorn, but “Sphere” is not a straightforward book; and yet, Barry Levinson tries to cram it into the mold of a straightforward Hollywood film with a big Hollywood cast.  It just doesn’t work, and really, it’s amazing that the tepid, sanitized results are even watchable at all.  Levinson is just not the right man for this particular job.

Nor really is most of this cast, which seems to have been chosen entirely based on name buzz as opposed to how well they fit their respective roles.  Sure, Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct), Samuel L. Jackson (Deep Blue Sea), Liev Schreiber (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and Queen Latifah (Chicago) are talented people, but they have no collective chemistry.  How can anyone possibly buy into the idea that Dustin Hoffman’s and Sharon Stone’s characters were ever lovers?  Look at them together.  It’s just absurd.  What’s Dustin Hoffman even doing in this movie, anyway?  Come to think of it, is he even awake?  This may look like a “Dream Team” on paper in some producer’s office, but on the screen, it’s a disaster.  Keep any two actors not named Hoffman and replace the rest with lesser-known players cast with role appropriateness and chemistry in mind, and maybe it could work, but as it stands, this group is severely overcooked.

On top of that, they’re stuck in some very thin broth.  The story’s been dumbed down, the overall action is about as exciting as watching someone mow the lawn.  (Assuming, of course, that you are not a cat, though if you are, watching someone mow the lawn is way more exciting.)  What should be a deep psychological thriller turns into a really tedious game of hot potato peppered with long interludes of speculative exposition.  When “something scary” happens, the atmosphere generates roughly the same amount of tension as a really wet noodle.  At the end of the day, the “I’m not!  You are!” arguments actually end up being more exciting than the action sequences.  I don’t care what planet you’re from; that’s just not right.  The poster claims that “terror can fill any space.”  If that’s true, then where the hell’s the terror?  I know that Levinson is capable of creating some sense of danger and adventure in his films; I’ve seen Young Sherlock Holmes and Good Morning, Vietnam.  But here, he’s just not interested; he’s got his big Hollywood cast and that’s all he intends to play off of.  At that point, why have action or sets at all?  It would be infuriating if it weren’t so damn mind numbing.

Even the spaceship is boring.  Aren’t we supposed to at least get a really cool spaceship in a movie like this?  Maybe the producers could have paid some people to do that if they hadn’t overspent on a top-loaded cast with no chemistry.

But then again, I’d rather that the money had been spent figuring out how to come up with a better take on the ending.  It was already tepid in the book, but the movie heavily magnifies the “What? That’s it?” effect.  I know that fixing it wouldn’t have been an impossible task; I’ve seen very similar endings work well in other movies that I’m not going to name here because I don’t want to spoil everything for those who are still willing to give this bland fish a shot anyway.  But no, the studio didn’t want it good; they wanted it next week, and so…

In the end, even Dustin Hoffman wasn’t satisfied with what made it to the screen.  To him, Sphere was an unfinished film that hadn’t had all of its major issues addressed and where King Deadline had the final say on things.  I think that’s a very mild assessment.  Things like “problems with the story” need to be addressed before production begins, and if you’re not going to hire the right director and an appropriate cast, then it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at a movie or how much time you take to film it: it’s just not going to work.

That anyone even considered the idea of having Queen Latifah record a duet with Huey Lewis to be played over the end credits of Sphere should tell you all you need to know about where people’s heads were with regard to this film.  (It didn't end up happening, but it was considered.) Get the big cast behind the big director for the adaptation of the book by the big name author and who gives a damn about the actual content.  It’s all about the marketing, right?  Right?

For once, they didn’t get away with it.  Sphere bombed at the box office, and can now be seen limping along on the bargain shelf in the world of home video.  Personally, I suggest that you let it keep limping.

Bottom line, Sphere is watchable background noise, but nothing else.  It’s got a great cast, but they’ve got zero chemistry, and the story has been reduced to its dullest possible form.  Tack on some tepid direction and one of the most annoyingly empty endings in recent memory, and you’ve got yourself a movie that is very, very easy to skip.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011

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