"I love science fiction as a genre. I mean, I've always been fascinated by it, but for me, I couldn't find the science fiction movie that would work for my sensibility, in terms of a willingness to spend that year-plus of your time. This one did, and I think it has all the elements of the sci-fi genre that I like, but ultimately doesn't really have the monster. With all of its sci-fi elements, it truly becomes a piece of paranoia between three characters. The interplay and the mistrust and all of that, it all begins to work on that level, which was fascinating to me."
- director Barry Levinson
"Sphere", based on the Michael Crichton book of the same name, almost never made into theaters after Warner Bros., fearing a "Waterworld" on its hands, decided to cease production during set construction in October of 1996, after coming to the conclusion that the $100 million dollar budget was exorbitant. And the budget horror stories of "Titanic", which was in production at the same time, certainly didn't help matters. However, the producers scrambled, and managed to trim the budget by at least $20 million, by using downmarket special effects team Jeff Okun and Tom Bland (who did the effects in "Stargate"), instead of the Mercedes of special effects, Industrial Light and Magic. The production was also carried out in specially-constructed tanks housed in an empty warehouse, avoiding the technical and logistical nightmare of filming on the open seas (which was the primary reason for the sky-high budget of "Waterworld").
What they ended up with is a sci-fi thriller that reunites director Barry Levinson (whose diverse portfolio includes "Rain Man", "Wag the Dog", and the television series "Homicide: Life on the Street") and actor Dustin Hoffman (who also appeared in "Wag the Dog"). It is an interesting 'guessing game of puppets' that builds up an enticing enigma, a heightened sense of paranoia, and then ultimately tears it all apart in a resolution that moralizes and finalizes in a manner not unlike a number of Star Trek episodes.
Psychologist Norman Johnson (Dustin Hoffman) is mysteriously summoned to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to provide trauma-assistance in what he believes to be a plane crash. However, when he arrives, U.S. Navy Captain Harold Barnes (Peter Coyote, in a more conservative appearance than his role in Roman Polanski's "Bitter Moon") informs him that he was summoned because of a paper he wrote several years prior on first contact procedures with alien lifeforms. Apparently, a spaceship is sitting on the ocean floor, and it has been there for at least three hundred years. And to top it off, the sonar is detecting the hum of machinery coming from inside of it.
Along for the foray into the alien craft are a group of scientists, each of them leaders in their respective fields. Dr. Beth Halpern (Sharon Stone) is a marine biologist that happens to be a former patient of Johnson's. Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson, in a role that was originally slotted for the best actor on television today, Andre Braugher of "Homicide: Life on the Street") is a cynical mathematician (a thinly-veiled Ian Malcom, no doubt). And Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber), an astrophysicist, rounds out the team. Together, they explore the mysterious spaceship and the odd artifact found within its hull, a perfect sphere.
Though "Sphere" starts off slowly, the film soon starts piling on the gee-whiz revelatory moments and the unexpected plot-twists. Levinson also seems to play with the audience's expectations of the underwater monster subgenre, by setting up what seems to be a cliché scene, only to send it off in a different direction (at one point, one character begins shaking violently while eating, but an alien DOES NOT burst out of their chest). What is most engaging about the film is the latter half of the second act, as the perspective of the story constantly shifts between three different characters, creating sympathy for a character in one scene, and then demonizing them in the next. Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? As the tension builds, it becomes less and less clear. And it is in the claustrophobic paranoia of these scenes, where things may not be as they appear, that "Sphere" excels. And this is only helped by Levinson's pseudo-documentary style which uses freehand camera work and aggressive jump-cuts, also known as 'The Homicide Look'. Unfortunately, just when you think the film is over, a silly epilogue segment with some "Star Trek" philosophizing that tries to wrap everything up a little too neatly with a cop-out (a great example of this would be the ST:Voyager two-parter "The Year of Hell"-- watch it and you'll know what I mean).
But despite the stumble in the third-act and some clunky dialogue, there still is enough in "Sphere" to make it worthwhile. Though it certainly is no "Contact", it still does have a measure of intelligence to the way it plays itself out, and was actually refreshing to see.