BY EDWIN JAHIEL SPHERE (1998) 1/2 * (half a star)
Q: In which movie category does "Sphere" belong?
Q: I hear you're a language policeman yet you misspelled "fi"!
A: No I didn't.
Q: I don't get it...but wait a minute. OK, I see. Still, why fie! on a work by writer-director Barry Levinson? Hasn't he been making fine movies?
A: He has indeed. Such as his warm, often funny "Baltimore" pictures: Diner, Tin Men, Avalon; such as The Natural, Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man (with Dustin Hoffman), Bugsy, Disclosure; or the current Wag the Dog (with Hoffman again), which, btw, was filmed fast, on a modest budget, in-between free periods of shooting "Sphere." Q: What did these movies have that Sphere doesn't?
A: They had character and characters.
Q: And Sphere?
A: Look. Among the things that come to mind when you think of the word "sphere" is a round bomb, the kind used by anarchists or in comics and cartoons; the kind that frightens you when it shows up on your computer's screen. It's a perfect symbol for this movie.
Q: What is it about, then?
A: There's a class of movies that you might call "motley crew in confined space." Like the passengers in "Stagecoach," the sailors in "Das Boot," the passengers in "Ship of Fools" or "Titanic," the guests and personnel in "Grand Hotel," the soldiers in a trench in dozens of war movies, and on and on. Here, they are scientists who plunge 1,000 feet into the Pacific to examine a mysterious spacecraft. Lackaday! At the same time the actors, the director, the writers, the editor and several others also plunge to the bottom of their professional lives.
A: Don't ask.
Q: Come on, at least give me a clue.
A: The actors, all big names, are cartoonish. Hoffman, the team's psychologist, sounds and walks like Hoffman in Rain Man; Sharon Stone is as lifeless and as sexy as an old East German Trabant auto (oh where oh where have her looks all gone?); Samuel Jackson is periodically catatonic. I'll stop here before I fall asleep again.
A: The dialogue is not spherical, but flat lines. Levinson is out of his depth with this kind of picture. He ought to go back to real humans, to his Baltimore strain.
Q: Does this mean that there are extra-terrestrials or critters around?
A: Well, the spacecraft has been there for 300 years it seems. It's actually back from the future. There's something about black holes and the year 2043 when the spacecraft was returned to the past. It turns out to be an American thing, still functioning, with computers that dialogue with the motley group. Its cargo is a big sphere that does things to people. Its round shape is solemnly discussed along with the significance of perfect circles, Zen, the painter Giotto and the Pope, and other philosophical stuff.
Q: Are you saying that this is intellectual sci-fi?
A: It tries to be but this only leads to muddles and confusion, develops into incoherent and arbitrary movie junk.
Q: If I get you right, you are talking mainly about electronics?
A: I'm talking about everything. The scientific gizmos get applied in impossible ways, with lightning speed. It reminded me of those pictures involving computers, often handled by kids. From laptops to supercomputers, all the machines respond in a flash and without a glitch.
Q: What about the visuals in general?
A: They're such a murky clutter that they make you long for the clean looks, the rigor and intelligence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or even for the original version of The Thing (From Another World).
Q: Since Barry Levinson is known for his sense of humor, there must be some remnants of this here.
A: Nary a trace. Everyone is deadly serious. There's just one gag. The team's composition is the brainchild of Hoffman, who years ago had been asked by the government to propose a such a group in case of an unlikely emergency. Hoffman did not take this seriously, yet, in what is the movie's major dig at scientific dishonesty, he obliged. concocted a list of super-bright young people he knew, then forgot all about it. It's come back to haunt him now.
Q: You call this funny?
A: Perhaps it's not. But let me tell you where the movie misses its real chance. On the computer screens in the sunken craft, the team's interlocutor is called Jerry. Now, had there been a second "being" they could have named it Tom.
Q: Could you be more specific about the plot?
A: Sorry. First comes my Hippocratic Oath, version Flicks, that forbids me to reveal too much. Second is the fact that having been through this opus miserabilis once I'd hate to suffer again by reliving the experience.
Q: At least try to remember some quotes.
A: If you insist. Here are two: 1) "I love eggs." 2) "I don't get it" (passim) Q: You're really stubborn. At least tell me who organized the expedition.
A: With pleasure. It's a government thing called OSSA. In World War II we had the admirable OSS (Office of Strategic Services) which evolved into the CIA. The anagram for OSS is SOS, if you get my drift. B: There must be some elements that work, right?
A: Wrong. The film is like a tossed salad in which no two ingredients go together. And talk of the Sweet Mystery of Life! The bottom line of Sphere is deja vu all over again, something that all true sci-fi-natics know better than their SS number. It boils down to our own fears creating monsters and such, to our psyches producing horrors that we take for real. Or, if you prefer: "I have seen the enemy and it's us." (But shouldn't that be "we"?)
Q: Last question. You are fully negative yet still gave half a star to the picture. Why?
A: Because the graphics of the opening credits are clever and beautiful.