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Nothing to Fear But 'Sphere' Itself

By Desson Howe
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 minor violence and dead bodies
"Sphere," Barry Levinson's adaptation of the Michael Crichton book, keeps you on tenterhooks most of the time – but not always for the right reasons.

What is the mysterious spacecraft that apparently crash-landed into the Pacific Ocean 300 years ago? What is the glowing, metallic orb inside it? (Hint: It's not a runaway disco ball from "Saturday Night Fever.") Why does the presence within seem very angry? And why do we Earthlings always send eccentric, quipping specialists (including biochemist Sharon Stone) to be the first point of contact with other life forms?

Speaking of eccentric specialists, let's meet the team! Joining biochemist Beth Halperin (Stone) 1,000 feet under are psychologist Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman), who initially thinks he's been summoned to counsel victims of an airplane crash, mathematician Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), astronomer Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber) and government agent Barnes (Peter Coyote), whose job is to ensure maximum security and secrecy.

The experts take a crash course in deep-sea diving, descend to the ocean floor, then take up residence in a pressure-controlled "habitat" while they investigate the silent spacecraft and its glistening sphere. Everything goes wrong, of course. Cut off from the surface by a storm, they're forced to use emergency power and make individual forays to the sphere, alone.

It gets crazy down there – among the humans, that is. Their pre-existing fears and inner demons come to the fore. Halperin, who has done her share of pill-popping in the past, has "a history" with Goodman, her former shrink. In my favorite line of the movie, Barnes says of the biochemist: "Now we've got a nutbag who can flip out or crack up."

Adams, who's rather terrified of squid (no Italian restaurants for this guy), has a constant battle with astronomer Fielding over which one of them is the true wunderkind. And the mathematician – who seems to be getting ever weirder – doesn't help matters by declaring, "We're all gonna die down here, you know."

Sounds promising, doesn't it? For a great while, director Levinson and his writing team (Kurt Wimmer, Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio) create a pretty good smoke-and-mirrors job of making you think something powerful is in the offing. But in the final stretches, when it's time to deliver the monster, bogeyman, colossal, man-eating anemone, smiling green men or whatever, you're left holding a rather deflated orb.

"Sphere" keeps you hanging on until the very last moment, not because it's scary, but because you can't believe that's all there is to it. To say much more would spoil things, but let's just say that Levinson loves screen chatter. In "Sphere," that's precisely what we get. Ultimately, the explanation we've been waiting for turns out to be just that: an explanation.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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