Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:12 - Released 2/13/98

For a movie of a novel written by Michael Crichton with such a capable cast, Sphere is quite a disappointment. This is partly because of its over 2-hour running length, but mainly it's just unfocused and disjointed. The characters in this adaptation by Kurt Wimmer, Stephen Hauser, and Paul Attanasio are all two-dimensional cutouts, and when faced with a life-threatening situation they don't pull together like normal people would do, but continuously bicker over petty differences and conspire against each other.

The story is this: an incredibly huge spacecraft of alien origin has been discovered at the bottom of the ocean, apparently having been there for hundreds of years. So a team of scientists is collected for the top-secret mission of exploring it and retrieving anything on board that might prove scientifically valuable. The most unsettling aspect of the thing, apart from the obvious, is that sensors detect that something onboard is still running.

The team assigned to go make friends with the little green men is made up of five civilians, each with a relevant expertise: Ted the astrophysicist (Liev Schreiber), Harry the mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson), Norman the psychologist (Dustin Hoffman), Beth the marine biologist (Sharon Stone), and Harold the commander (Peter Coyote). Each is recognized as an expert in his field, and they all seem to know and have issues with each other. And there is no shortage of controlled animosity.

When they get into the spacecraft, they discover two things: (1) the remains of human, apparently American astronauts, and (2) a huge, shimmering gold ball, kinda like the one at Epcot Center. Soon, despite being warned not to, Harry touches the sphere and gets sucked in for a few minutes. He is then spat out apparently unharmed, but that's when it really hits the fan.

And that, too, is when the movie breaks down. Up until the point of Harry's adventure, it is interesting, relatively believable, and tight. But for the remaining (interminable) 90 minutes of film, director Barry Levinson seems to have dropped the ball (pun intended) and can't retrieve it. The action moves in fits and starts, with moments of overblown terror interspersed with boring passages of pointless squabbling between the crew. Each character has faults that are identified and harped on ad nauseum by the others. There are 20-minute scenes that appear to go nowhere. And the members of the crew alternate between saving each other's lives and trying to kill each other.

To be fair, this fickle quality of the characters can be explained somewhat by their individual experiences with the sphere, but the main problem here is tempo. There is absolutely no reason for this film to be over 2 hours long. There is (finally) a fascinating and well-edited climax, but the ending is simplified to the point of being ridiculous.

This movie seems to be patterned somewhat after Alien, with the small crew whose confidence in themselves and each other is threatened by a horrific situation, but the difference is direction. In that 1979 classic, Ridley Scott had 5-minute scenes of silence that meant something. In Sphere, Levinson has 20 minute scenes of yammering that mean nothing. **

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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