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A Locked-Door SF Mystery Underwater

(This review originally appeared in the February 12-18, 1998, Long Island Voice.)

Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels

If last year’s Event Horizon was a haunted house in space, Sphere is a monster movie with the greatest threat coming from within. That said, Sphere is more science fiction thriller than science horror like Event Horizon was.

For his first SF film (not counting the hard-to-classify Toys and Young Sherlock Holmes), director Barry Levinson does a great job despite being hampered by a flawed script — and I’m not just saying that because we’re both from Baltimore. Sphere is totally engrossing and its two-plus hour running time flies by. The special effects, while excellent, never take over the story. It’s easy to see why this seriously character-driven script attracted Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone and Peter Coyote.

Levinson is also a director who knows that restraint can be the most effective way to terrify an audience. You know the moment an automatically closing hatch door is propped open that someone will be crushed by it. When the time comes, flailing legs going still are more effective than buckets of blood would have been.

Upon finding a crashed space ship 1,000 miles beneath the Pacific, the government puts together a team of specialists for a first-contact situation with unknown life forms, based on information in a report by Dr. Norman Goodman (Hoffman). Never thinking the report would be used, Goodman suggested a highly competitive astrophysicist (Liev Schreiber), a brilliant, pessimistic mathematician (Jackson) and possibly unstable biochemist (Stone) with whom Goodman has a past. Like any locked-door mystery, the personality mix combined with their inability to leave prove to be the most volatile combination.

Within the spaceship is the titular sphere, and what it contains or can do is what lights the match to this powder keg. The flaw is that when the threat transform from an exterior danger to an interior one, the shift is not seamless. To Sphere’s credit, you don’t notice the logic shift until after the credits roll.

The other problem is that one of the keys to solving the mystery just doesn’t work. Pay attention to when they decode the message. It makes perfect sense — until later when Norman realizes that part of the code was solved incorrectly to hide something. If what he finds were true, all the other messages would have been spelled wrong.

That said, Sphere is still an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Even though we know there’s no way all the stars in a Michael Crichton film could be killed, the movie kept me guessing.

The acting is also everything you would expect of this cast. Hoffman and Jackson are definitely not slumming. The interplay between the cast as loyalties and trust shifts is worthy of their collective awards. The underwater scenes are beautiful, but the McGuffin that closes the film gives it a Tinkerbell-ish feel, though it sort of makes sense.

(A Warner Bros. release. Directed by Barry Levinson.)

Review 1998 Long Island Voice.








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