Sphere is the 1998 film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1987 sci-fi classic, following a group of scientists as they descend to the bottom of the ocean to investigate a newly discovered spaceship. It’s a movie with a bunch of big names including Samuel L. Jackson, Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and most notably, Queen Latifah. Despite the depth of stardom in the cast the movie was a financial flop and was widely panned by critics. We’re here to dive in and explore whether the movie is as bad as it’s 12% Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest. Keep in mind that in doing so, we will spoil the story. Let’s go.
Reviewed by: Jake
Dustin Hoffman plays Norman Goodman. Norm’s a psychologist and he’s flying out to the middle of the ocean to join a group of scientists hand-picked to plunge into the depths and explore an alien spacecraft that was discovered on the seafloor. It’s been down there for about 300 years and needs to be scienced. Among the group is mathematician Harry (Samuel L. Jackson), marine biologist Beth (Sharon Stone), astrophysicist Ted (Liev Schreiber) and some other nondescript grunts including Queen Latifah.
The intrepid crew descends to a lab set up on the ocean bed and head over to the spacecraft when they feel they are prepared to make contact with whatever may be inside. Turns out what’s inside is American. And it’s from the future. Mind blown. There’s some mysterious cargo in the form of a gigantic, golden mercury sphere on the ship. The object quickly becomes the focus of the crew and Harry makes a trip out to the ship solo and finds a way to enter the sphere. Shortly thereafter, weird things start to happen. The crew receives encrypted messages from what they think is an alien, whose name they decode to be “Jerry”. Jerry likes to play games like sending giant squid to attack the crew’s base and populating the area outside with jellyfish that quickly kill Queen Latifah. There’s much consternation about the impossibility of the sea creatures and realization that the crew is in grave danger. To make matters worse, a storm on the surface prevents them from abandoning the mission, even as their numbers begin to dwindle.
An attack by the giant squid kills Ted and the Naval captain Harold (Peter Coyote). Harry sleeps through pretty much everything and spends his waking hours reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Harry has some chilling logic to describe his calm demeanor in the face of the fucked up events. He reasons that the spaceship is from the future, and it traveled back in time, so for the events leading to it’s crash to have taken place, the information of the discovery must have never gotten out, meaning everyone must die. Pretty soon, the surviving crew realizes that the events are actually manifestations of their own fears, and that entering the sphere has given them the power to make the things they are afraid of happen in reality. Norman discovers “Jerry” is actually Harry and they just fucked up because they are bad scientists. Inexcusable.
Chaos ensues but eventually Norman, Beth, and Harry are able to evacuate the habitat in an escape sub after Beth tries to kill everyone by being scared of the spaceship blowing up. Good work Beth. Upon returning to the surface, they decide that they have the power to forget about the sphere, ensuring the info about the sphere and the spacecraft never gets out. The sphere, seemingly peeved by the ease at which its new friends completely forget about it, flies away into space. Fin.
What the Movie Does Right
Being based on a novel, it’s hard to appropriately assign credit, but the story of Sphere is a novel one. The blend of space and underwater horror makes for a very eerie backdrop that provides plenty of tension and claustrophobia over the course of the film. Adding in the mystery of the sphere and the time travel question only helps give the story an even more unique feel. As far as film adaptations of novels are concerned, this actually does a pretty good job as well. Most of the major ground is covered and though there are a few elements that will be discussed in the next section, there isn’t an overwhelming amount to complain about here.
Another major selling point of this movie is its cast. Hoffman, Jackson, Stone and Schreiber all turn in good performances and have the star power to hold your interest. The chemistry between the characters is mostly believable, which is hugely important in a movie relying on the claustrophobia of the undersea base.
What the Movie Does Wrong
The primary issue this this movie is its length. I mentioned earlier that the film is a fairly faithful adaptation of the book, but it’s also over two hours long. There are plenty of bits and pieces to this movie that could have been cut with zero negative repercussions. The pacing suffers on multiple occasions because of some of the bloated sequences, and though I don’t have an issue with longer movies in general, this is needlessly long. That’s frustrating.
Speaking of the adaptation from book to screen, there are some areas where things fall flat. The primary offender is the coded communication received from Jerry/Harry. In a book the information is right there in front of you and if you choose, you could actually decipher the message and uncover the error right there when it’s first presented. Not that someone would do this, but it’s an example of how the content doesn’t always fit the medium and the movie does not create an elegant solution for the problem. The result makes the realization of the error feel fairly idiotic.
Another major issue with the movie are some pretty shoddy CG effects. Pretty much anything having to do with the sphere or the entrance of a human into said sphere looks like unmitigated horse shit. It was the late 90’s and everyone was in love with CG but the cardboard cutout result could not have looked good to anyone working on this film.
Lastly, for a movie about a team of scientists all doing science things in an underwater science lab there's an overwhelming amount of handwaving idiocy. At one point Ted states that Oxygen is in the same periodic family as Chlorine and Fluorine. Wrong. He says their hydrated forms (Hydrochloric and Hydrofluoric acid) are corrosive and that's why they can't have higher oxygen levels in the lab, but the hydrated form of Oxygen is water. In another scene Beth tries to figure out the connection between Harry, the sphere, and the eggs he's eating for breakfast. Here are her notes as shown on screen:
Story: 7 - The Crichton novel that this film is adapted from is flat out awesome. It’s interesting and terrifying. For the most part, this is a good adaptation of that story. The main issue is that it could have been adapted a bit more tightly and lost some unnecessary weight for the film format.
World-Building / Immersion: 5 - It’s not very hard for me to become engrossed in anything involving space or the ocean, and this shit has both. However, this shit also has some terribly bloated sequences and is over two hours long. On the bright side, you have time to drink plenty of beers while watching, i guess...
Scare-Factor: 6 - The ocean is fucking terrifying. A spaceship at the bottom of the ocean is even more terrifying. Being trapped at the bottom of the ocean in close proximity to a spaceship that houses a mysterious sphere and seems like it might have traveled through time is a whole lot of NOPE. The thing keeping this score from being higher is that the overall tone of the movie is not that of a horror film, because it isn’t one (my bad…). There’s a lot of creepiness here, but the movie generally steers clear of wading into full-on horror waters.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 5 - The set design here is pretty damn good. Everything else is not. Ultimately, I think this is a down-the-middle score. Just feels right.
Overall: 5.5 - I personally don’t see why this movie flopped so hard. To be clear, I don’t think the finished product turned out to be a classic. It’s overly long and loses momentum throughout. But it’s still an interesting concept and a movie with tons of star power. I recommend giving this one a watch.