Sphere is not a justifiable use of eighty million dollars. I don’t think you could justify spending a dollar to rent a copy to watch, much less eighty million of them to make the thing.
The big problem is the script. Whatever Kurt Wimmer (ominously credited with “adaptation”), Stephen Hauser, and Paul Attanasio did to adapt the Michael Crichton source novel does not a successful script make. It’s got ludicrous character development and bad pacing, and is artificially bewildering and exceptionally crappy to women, specifically Sharon Stone. But there’s so much to fix, so much to compensate for, director Levinson just gives up on even trying. Script’s a big problem but Levinson’s inability to crack any aspect of the project is the biggest. It’s not incompetently directed. It’s incompetently written, incompetently produced, but Levinson’s direction isn’t actually incompetent. It’s just vapid.
Vapid is the word for Levinson’s direction. He’s not interested in executing the film successfully, just executing it. At 134 minutes, it’s a bit of a chore to watch but I imagine it was even more of a chore to make with so little investment whatsoever. Amusingly lead Dustin Hoffman has a bit—apparently ad-libbed—where he explains to Samuel L. Jackson, before the government submarines them to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to meet space aliens, Hoffman bullshitted a report about how he, Jackson, Stone, and physics whiz kid Liev Schreiber should be the ones to first contact with any space aliens. He used the money to pay for the downpayment on his house, making one wonder what everyone involved with Sphere did with their paychecks before turning in their bullshit….
Okay, that one is a little unfair. Schreiber busts his ass to show-off in a bad part. There’s also these weird optics about competitiveness between Jackson and Schreiber and it’s inexplicable why Schreiber’s got it out for Jackson. Jackson doesn’t like Schreiber because he thinks he’s obnoxious, which is fine—though Schreiber gets intentionally less obnoxious in the second act and it backfires. Schreiber’s a lot better being annoying and doing exposition dumps than not being as annoying and giving them. Of course, the second act stuff isn’t his fault exactly because the film needs its eggheads—Jackson’s a mathematician, Schreiber’s physics, Hoffman’s a psychologist, Stone’s a biochemist-to do all sorts of things you’re not sure they’d know how to do… like setting explosives, repairing underwater habitats, on the fly code-cracking—Stone’s basically a medic, they all know how to get into their underwater suits and go for solo strolls. On and on. Sphere’s got a very limited cast—seven people in a habitat next to a giant spaceship, crash landed 300 years ago, but you’d need a support crew of a dozen to get everything done in the movie you need to get done considering they’re a bunch of narcissistic academics.
But back to the Schreiber vs. Jackson thing—it feels like there are some optics. Jackson’s the Black guy in what turns into a horror movie. He’s got a predicted part in the film.
See, once they go inside the spaceship they find all sorts of weird things, including a giant gold ball and they all become obsessed with it. Except Schreiber and Man in Black boss of the mission Peter Coyote. Oh, if only Peter Coyote were good in the movie. I really think a good performance in that part would at least keep Sphere somewhat buoyant.
Because Coyote, Jackson, and Schreiber have the film’s most important parts. Hoffman’s a terrible leading man. His part seems inflated and Stone’s decreased, which is concerning. Sphere feels very poorly assembled. Stu Linder’s cuts are fine, but the pace of the film, the focus of the narrative impulse? Not good. Whatever Levinson needed to crack with Sphere in terms of characters, plotting, scares, science fictions, musics, whatever… he doesn’t. He’s got no more idea what to do with Sphere at the end than he does at the beginning.
Except to crap on Stone whenever possible. See, she was once Hoffman’s patient and so they had an affair. But he forgot to mention he was married, so he was lying to her while treating her medically. When she felt bad after their breakup and took a bunch of pills, sounds like Hoffman had her sent to electro-shock. Like, he’s a criminal. He shouldn’t just lose his license, he should be charged with something. It’s messed up.
But it’s not the subplot—the subplot is Stone is a crazy woman and no one should trust her, something Coyote rails about, Jackson rails about, Hoffman has an arc about. A vague, vague, vague arc but he definitely goes from thinking he can trust Stone in the beginning to thinking she’s psychotic by the end. With Coyote and Jackson at multiple times counseling Hoffman not to trust Stone because she’s a crazy woman.
It’s really icky.
And even more unfortunate because Stone’s really not good.
She’s got a crap part—such a crap part, just guys violently gaslighting her scene after scene—the writing’s terrible, whatever… and there’s still just something Stone doesn’t bring. Jackson’s got his part down, problematic as some of his scenes get when they think he’s Brett after Ripley let him back into the ship; he’s still got it down. When something goes wrong with Jackson’s performance, it’s the script. Schreiber’s working. Coyote and Hoffman, to differing success, just aim low in every scene and always hit that effectiveness. The least effort possible. Hoffman’s just wrong for it. You wish he weren’t wrong for it because it’d be cool if he could do it, but he can’t do it. Not with how the film’s set up, not with the bad writing, not with Hoffman’s maximum level of effort for this project.
Queen Latifah gets fifth billing and is in what ends up being the film’s best looking visual sequence. Adam Greenberg’s photography is boring, but it’s not his fault. Levinson refuses to give Sphere a visual style, horror, wonder, drama—the second act showdowns between Stone and Hoffman, better written and directed, are Bergman-esque—but it’s not a cheap looking film (save the late nineties CGI) and so it occasionally looks quite good. Latifah’s effect scene’s the one where they spend the time. Shame it’s early on and the film never tries to top it.
Because Levinson’s not trying to ape Kubrick. Worse he doesn’t even seem to acknowledge he should. A bunch of failed homage would make Sphere at least a little fun, instead of frequently upsetting. It’s a drain to watch characters start dying off during the haunted house portion of the film and no one care about it. It’s actually impossible to have less empathy for another character than the characters in Sphere have for one another. Multiple times people get informed of someone dying and the reaction not even warranting a shrug. The biggest question the film raises is, “Is the writing right now bad or lazy and how could you tell the difference?”
Of course, if Sphere were an inevitable fail, it might be fun. But there’s no reason, with a better script, with better direction, with someone else in for Peter Coyote because Coyote’s not showy enough for the part, the film couldn’t be a success. But Levinson’s not the one to do it. It’s clearly the wrong kind of dumb idea for him to fix.
Directed by Barry Levinson; screenplay by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio, based on an adaptation by Kurt Wimmer and the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Stu Linder; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Norman Reynolds; costume designer, Gloria Gresham; produced by Levinson, Crichton, and Andrew Wald; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Dustin Hoffman (Norman), Sharon Stone (Beth), Samuel L. Jackson (Harry), Liev Schreiber (Ted), Queen Latifah (Fletcher), Marga Gómez (Edmunds), and Peter Coyote (Barnes).