Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, lying one-thousand feet at the bottom of the surface, lies an alien spacecraft. Covered in centuries of coral, the half-mile long ship has laid quiet, undisturbed. All that changes in director Barry Levinson’s big-screen pass on yet another of Michael Crichton’s page-turners.

Crichton’s novels have become a cottage industry for Hollywood, and the results are usually satisfying. “Andromeda Strain,” “Disclosure,” and “Jurassic Park” were all celluloid equivalents of a good novel. It was inevitable that “Sphere” would find its way to the big screen, and while it’s not top of the line Crichton, it’s not nearly as bad as “Congo.” Visually exciting and fleshed out with a high rent cast, “Sphere” lacks the thrills and emotional pay- offs we have come to expect from such fare.

Working against “Sphere” is that much of it seems familiar. Screenwriters Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio liberally borrow from other science-fiction films to flesh out Crichton’s novel, including obvious nods to “Alien,” “The Abyss,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Leviathan,” “Forbidden Planet,” and even the recent “Event Horizon.”

It helps to have along stars like Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson, who do their best to draw us into the action. They invest themselves thoroughly in their characters, a group of scientists trapped in a underwater lab by something inside the ship that keeps messing with their thoughts. The first half of “Sphere” is promising indeed. Hoffman is very likeable as Dr. Norman Goodman, a psychologist whose report on alien encounters has landed him a spot on this very top secret mission.

He’s teamed up with former patient and biochemist Beth Halperin (Stone), mathematician Harry Adams (Jackson), and astrophysicist Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber). They’re joined by government operative Peter Coyote and two assistants (both on board to serve as victims) as they try to discover the origin of the craft, and the mysterious golden orb that pulsates inside. What the ship is and how it got there makes for engaging viewing, but once the characters settle down to analyze what they have discovered, the film becomes a redundant bore.

“Sphere” drags on way too long, especially once the audience realizes that they’re always two steps ahead of the characters. It’s almost insulting that the writers have made each character brilliant yet not very bright. They say and do things that make no sense considering their pedigrees. Levinson stages some impressive action sequences, and the film occasionally comes to life, offering a glimpse of what might have been.

The special effects are impressive for what they are, but there’s nothing really special about “Sphere.” In the end, it becomes a water-logged, half-baked effort that’s long on talk and extremely short on suspense and knee-jerk reactions.



Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Peter Coyote, Queen Latifah and Marga Gomez in a film directed by Barry Levinson. Rated PG-13. 133 Min.


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