Friday, May 29, 2015

Movie Review - Sphere

Based on the book by Michael Crichton
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Peter Coyote, Queen Latifah, Marga Gómez, Huey Lewis, Bernard Hocke, James Pickens, Jr., Michael Keys Hall, and Ralph Tabakin
Release Date: February 13th, 1998
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Psychologist Norman Goodman has been called to a crash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He assumes it's just another normal plane crash where he is there to help the survivors. Instead it's an alien space craft that has crashed and the bogus report he doctored up for the Bush administration is being used as the protocol for contact with these unknown entities. The rest of the team is made up of friends he randomly picked, including an ex patient and lover, Beth, who might have some severe issues as well as a prescription drug dependence. No on in the team is excited to head to the bottom of the ocean, but curiosity wins out. Though they are quickly disappointed. The ship is American, from the future. The only thing of interest is a giant, obviously alien, sphere. Plans are soon made to return to the surface because they were only brought in if this was first contact. No one to contact, no point in keeping the bogus response team on call. Then one of the team, Harry, goes inside the sphere and everything changes. They are trapped on the ocean floor and they soon start to die in quick succession. But what or who is manifesting these attacks?

After the disappointment that was Congo followed by the abysmal Spielberg interpretation of The Lost World most of my hopes for a decent adaptation of Sphere went out the window. Yet I was still there at the theater opening day despite all my reservations about the bad stunt casting and my total conviction that Samuel L. Jackson wouldn't work for Harry, I really was routing for Andre Braugher to be cast, and as for Dustin Hoffman, well, more on that later. I was disappointed. I knew I would be, which might have clouded my judgement a bit I will admit, but it couldn't be helped. Re-watching the movie for the first time in seventeen years it wasn't as bad as I remembered, and it was a shock to me that it's been seventeen years. Sphere's adaptation is still highly flawed, but they tried, unlike Congo and The Lost World, and in there, somewhere, is the essence of the book, you just have to set your expectations aside.

The main problem with Sphere is that it is a psychological thriller about the human imagination that someone decided it needed to eschew the understated and spell things out in letters that you can read from outer space. Because everyone knows that us consumers haven't a brain cell to share between us so go big or go home. Why be subtle when you can be direct? The movie takes away the sophisticated and psychological and hits you over the head with a big stick. Instead of drawing out the suspense and slowly building it by letting us acclimatise to the habitat under the ocean and making us feel that it's a safe haven, as the book does before the terror sets in, we go straight to Queen Latifah being killed by jellyfish.

We have known Queen Latifah's character all of two seconds before she's killed so we have no investment here. The book has periods of calm and intense action, creating more suspense. Here we have constant action, people running around a screaming, now there's a fire, but not a small fire, it's now Backdraft underwater, and Peter Coyote is cut in half by a door! Ah yes, doors, such an easy way to die! Because when in doubt panic and shout! I wanted the multiple interpretations and ambiguity that made the book something you want to go back to again and again, whereas the movie is just one and done. The prime example is instead of keeping it a secret as to who went into the sphere and then drawing out the reveal as to who is doing the damage, just show Norman going in right away. Spell it out for us dummies. I don't think it's surprising that I haven't watched the film since I saw it in the theaters, I'm also not surprised it bombed. Because once you get to the end and there's a flying golden orb shooting out of the ocean into the depths of deep space, if you were in any doubt as to the obviousness of the storytelling, well, your doubt would be gone.

The lack of subtlety translates itself well with the highhanded score. Here more then anywhere else we are repeatedly hit over the head with this epic score worthy of a Jules Verne adaptation. I would love to see this movie recut with a different score because I think this, more then anything else, could help up the psychological terror. Think of how spooky it would be with just silence and little bursts of music. When I think of what the ocean floor must be like, silence with a slight sonar ping is what comes to mind. There's a reason that Jaws has so little music, it works! Here it feels as if the secondary habitat just might contain the Phantom of the Opera testing out his skills in the South Pacific. 

But what annoyed me most of all, aside from that horrid opening credits with the font going from sans serif to serif when it hits a spherical shape coupled with the movie's primary font, was the drastic shift in characters. All the characters across the board seemed to have a drastic downshift in intelligence, Norman is more a putz with any of his good lines being given to Harry, but never is that more clear then with Beth. Beth is complicated yet fiercely intelligent in the book, here she is debased by being sidelined by making her nothing more then part of Norman's backstory. Yes, by all means take this strong and interestingly complicated character and make her a bimbo with many issues, a prescription drug habit, and a chip on her shoulder from a very inappropriate affair with Norman. In fact it strains credulity that Dustin Hoffman could have ever in any known universe pulled Sharon Stone.

Speaking of Sharon Stone, I do wonder how much the character shift was based on casting. Samuel L. Jackson was a big star, this movie falling right between Pulp Fiction and Star Wars, so they beefed up his role. Sharon Stone, the femme fatale, well, obvious sex her up and drop down that IQ. What annoys me though, is aside from Dustin Hoffman, this was a perfectly cast movie. If the characters had stayed in line with the book this could have been the best adaptation of a Crichton novel yet! And I seriously take back any doubts I have about Samuel L. Jackson, because him and Sharon Stone made this movie work to a certain extent. It's Dustin Hoffman where everything falls apart. He just might be one of my most hated actors ever. I have liked him in all of two movies, Hook and Kung Fu Panda. That is it. He is an annoying putz that I just want to smack. He has no range and is almost always playing the same character. Hoffman is doing a disservice to the character of Norman, but the worst was having Norman say that he falsified his report to the government. Yes, I can see the Dustin Hoffman Norman doing this. The real, true Norman? No way!

Putting aside the bad casting what it all comes down to is that a movie needs to be a movie and a book needs to be a book. For some reason the movie, despite going off on wild tangents, kept trying to force the book's structure onto itself. With that horrid font setting up sections like "The Monster" it felt like the movie was too scared to try to find it's own identity and therefore clung to a gimmick that worked in the book because time was spread out and there were gaps between the manifested attacks in which tension built. By having the movie be in your face every second, well, sometimes those little sections would be mere minutes apart and just took away from the film. The only time the movie really just broke away from the book was in the hallucinatory ending in the sub that felt so forced I actually was feeling sad for the movie. Sphere just didn't know how to be it's own thing and it died a pathetic death. You can watch it for the potential, but it was wasted and might just leave you depressed. 


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