Sphere (1998) — It’ll make your brain hurt

“What happens if Jerry gets mad?”

Justin’s rating: Round is the new square

Justin’s review: I think it’s a perfectly natural, even healing, reaction after watching Sphere to immediately find a loved one, curl up around their ankles, and cry warm salty tears on their toes. This should be a sign to them that you’re in dire need of a hot fudge sundae and a listening ear.

It’s not that Sphere is merely a bad movie. It’s that Sphere is a bad movie that wants to make your brain hurt in as many ways possible.

Sphere comes from the book by Michael Crichton, who seemingly could do no wrong in the cinematic world after Jurassic Park — and then promptly went and cast away his goodwill by signing off on Congo, The 13th Warrior, and Timeline. I’ve never read the book that this film is based off of, but I am familiar with Crichton’s pop science fiction enough to call “liar liar pants on fire” for this enterprise.

Unlike many bad movies, Sphere doesn’t reveal its disappointing hand until you’ve invested a fair amount of time in this lengthy (130 minutes) flick. It starts out reasonable, almost intriguing: A team of science-type people are called in to investigate a newly discovered alien spacecraft sitting on the ocean floor. They dive down to a special underwater habitat (movie law states that any man-made underwater habitats must completely fail by the end of the movie; see Deep Blue Sea, The Abyss, etc.) and go on a jaunty walk over to see Mr. E.T. Sure, there’s bombastic “This Is A Really Important Discovery” music that doesn’t let up, and unnecessary title cards that break the action now and then, but it’s nothing too atrocious.

Apologies in advance, but to continue with this review I have to share some minor spoilers here of a plot twist — but it’s early on in the film, so I feel justified in doing so.

It turns out that the “alien spacecraft” is actually an American spaceship from some indeterminate time in the future that got sucked into a black hole and crash-landed on Earth 300 years in the past. Interesting! And to make matters more hinky, there’s this huge alien sphere in the cargo hold. Intriguing! Seems like things are looking up for this film, eh?

You wish. Here’s where the movie derails and continues to plow into the ground right up until the end credits. Director Barry Levinson proceeds to make a film where no two scenes fit snugly together; the movie is a disjointed puzzle of moments that skip forward in time while leaving little plot threads hanging left and right.

For example: they find the ship’s logs and only watch the last one, where the spaceship enters the black hole. Fine. But then they never watch any of the other logs, or do any real further investigating of the spacecraft to learn all it has to teach us. Excuse me? Alien sphere or no, the spaceship is a monumental discovery, and there’s no way you could’ve dragged any self-respecting scientist off the thing. But the team seems pretty content just to wander back to their habitat and let bad stuff happen to them when the special effects budget allows.

Another huge plot hole: The government discovers this spaceship, right? And they go to the trouble of getting a lot of ships to the area, hauling in a fairly big underwater habitat from God knows where, and hooking up a massive entrance airlock to the spaceship, and putting a ton of spotlights on the spaceship to make it look more impressive… and nobody from the government or military went into the thing before or after our heroes? They actually had the patience to wait for four civilian scientists to come down there and enter that thing completely alone with only one government agent as a chaperone?

Like some lesser version of Abyss, the team finds themselves cut off from the surface and dealing with mental instabilities that seem to turn friend to foe, blah blah. The characters don’t interact in believable or interesting ways; Sam Jackson turns into a bubbling loony early on, Dustin Hoffman seems to want to psychoanalyze everyone he encounters (because, you know, he’s a shrink), and Sharon Stone exists to look positively frightening for a member of the female gender.

And I haven’t even gotten to the killer jellyfish yet or the giant squid attack.

Because no one acts like believable human beings, possibly to cover up the big (non-)mystery in the film, scene after scene of “can you top this?” ridiculousness is dumped straight into our frontal lobes. We’re going to evacuate the habitat in just two hours — perfect time to go take a nap and shave! Killer jellyfish attack — and no one really reacts or tries to help the victim or even appear a tiny bit sad! We use a 20-point font text editor to communicate with an alien intelligence, who talks like it’s in a Dick and Jane primer! Fire breaks out all over the place — which doesn’t matter, because everything seems to be working just peachy two scenes later!

What makes things even worse — yes, it is possible — is that the film seems to feel the need to have its four PhD’s constantly spout Crichton’s pseudo-smart logical deductions about life, the universe, and everything… and constantly get everything as wrong or as far off base or as pointless as possible. Yes, this is the film where Liev Schrieber spends a couple minutes, in a squeaky voice, detailing the effects of helium on your voicebox.

I wouldn’t dare to spoil the long, drawn-out ending that is so full of idiocy and dumb developments that I think Carrot Top weeps every day he didn’t get a role in this. But point-blank, Sphere is a rabid dog that needs to be taken out to the shed and put out of its misery. It’s not just an embarrassment to everyone involved, but also to the viewer.

Didja notice?

  • It’s a music team-up for the ages: Huey Lewis and Queen Latifah!
  • Coral could not grow so far down on the ocean floor, nor is the coral on the ship really ever shown
  • All of the characters talking in helium voices… thanks. That just shot any credibility this film might’ve had. Also, why isn’t Barnes in the chamber with them?
  • That one girl has a SERIOUS gap in her front teeth
  • Elementary physics = taking a hammer and chisel and whacking away at a door to no good end.
  • Yay! Let’s split up in the mysterious spaceship of doom!
  • Jellyfish can cut open suits and sting you to death mercilessly!
  • Helium can “saturate” computer chips, apparently
  • Binary… base 10… it’s all the same, really
  • Barnes really, really likes sending other people to do his chores
  • If the code was wrong, wouldn’t that change all of the letters, not just two of them for one single word?
  • PANTHER EXPLOSIVES! For blowing up panthers!

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