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'Sphere': Below See Level

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 1998

  Movie Critic

Barry Levinson directs an ensemble cast in "Sphere." (Warner Bros.)

Barry Levinson
Dustin Hoffman;
Sharon Stone;
Samuel L. Jackson;
Peter Coyote;
Queen Latifah;
Liev Schreiber;
Marga Gomez
Running Time:
1 hour, 56 minutes
For violence and profanity
"Sphere," an unfathomable chowder of recycled science fiction and undersea thrillers, briefly bubbles with promise only to plummet into the murky depths. Weighed down by inconsistencies and pretensions, the tale founders like a stinky beluga.

Based on Michael Crichton's 1987 novel, the film is primarily an id monster movie right out of one of the larkier old "Star Trek" episodes. Ignore the giant squid, the killer jellyfish, the haunted computer and the dead astronauts from the past – or maybe the future. Eventually, every clue leads to a dead end. Even director Barry Levinson and the four writers don't seem to know where they're headed and what it all means.

Levinson, clearly at home with the scale and literacy of "Wag the Dog," is out of his element at the helm of a gargantuan, hardware-heavy suspense yarn. Even "Titanic" director Jim Cameron capsized with the underwater saga "Abyss," one of "Sphere's" more obvious precursors.

Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson and "Scream's" Liev Schreiber are undoubtedly just as bewildered as their director by the story's ever-shifting boundaries. But they slog on with fierce determination. To a person, they display the selfless resignation of kamikazes.

Hoffman plays the affable but unethical Dr. Goodman, a psychologist who wrote a report for the Bush administration on the do's and don'ts of close encounters. Figuring that nobody would ever read the paper, he made some of it up and cribbed the rest from Rod Serling and Isaac Asimov.

As far as the government is concerned, however, Goodman is the go-to guy when it comes to dealing with alien invasion. To that end, he and three specialists he mentioned in his report are called to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to investigate a downed spacecraft.

To complicate matters, Hoffman slept with Stone, a biochemist, while she was a patient. And she's still plenty ticked. Jackson, a wisecracking mathematician, and Schreiber, a geeky astrophysicist, are respectively Hoffman's good friend and a former student. Jackson and Schreiber are also longtime professional rivals. Otherwise, they have no lives.

The hastily assembled team tries to put differences aside when it takes up residence in a cramped deep-water habitat while snooping about the massive, coral-frosted craft. The four waste no time getting a look inside the ship, which has been resting on the ocean floor for nearly 300 years.

Along with evidence of human presence, they discover the title object, a gargantuan sphere with no discernible purpose beyond its beauty. Though they note its perfect dimensions and selectively reflective surface, they remain baffled.

The thing's raison d'etre is the movie's central mystery, but none of the increasingly unstable characters is capable of playing detective. And as the clues pile up like the mountain of squid eggs around the habitat, you realize that whatever it is and whatever it does just isn't going to be worth the pain.

You find yourself envying the movie's first victim – Queen Latifah as a swabbie jumped by jellyfish. The Queen's in a better place now, we know. It sure couldn't be any worse than here.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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