Science fiction films lately just haven't exhibited enough imagination. The last genuinely captivating major sci-fi release was last summer's Contact, a wonderfully intelligent film that used its complex characterizations and knowledge of human behavior to tell a story that added up to something substantive.
After shallow thriller conventions like Event Horizon and Alien Resurrection, it's refreshing to see that Sphere contains a few imaginative ideas that aren't based on the wrath of "hell" or simple-minded aliens determined to pick off the lowest-paid of a movie's cast one by one. But Sphere is a film with an ambition that proves to be its own downfall. Whenever this film starts to work on one level, it grows untenable on another.
They say there's a difference between a mystery and a muddle, and for too long a time—up until the very end of the movie, in fact—Sphere precariously and all too aimlessly walks the line separating the two. Yet pieces of the story are filled with moments of interest and anticipation, and it's almost amazing how intriguing this movie can be for ten minutes at a time.
The plot is comprised of a series of events in which the mystery must be answered for any of it to be truly understood. I won't reveal the mystery, of course; you'll have to see it for yourself if you want any answers. Suffice it to say that the U.S. government finds a spaceship on the ocean floor—where it has apparently been sitting for 300 years. A team is assembled to contact whomever, if anyone, is on board. Comprised of a psychologist (Dustin Hoffman), a biologist (Sharon Stone), a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson), a physicist (Live Schreiber) and an obligatory military officer (Peter Coyote), the team investigates the vacant ship. What they find is a large, ominous sphere which holds, naturally, the key to all the movie's questions.
I won't go any further into details, but what ensues from here is an odd mix of good cinematic moments playing against tired ones. The film's premise allows the story to mess around with reality. It continuously prompts us to ask what's real and what isn't, and then why some things are real and why some apparently aren't. A good deal of this is effective under the atmospheric direction of Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog). The film is particularly adept at utilizing intriguingly freaky visual imagery—like, for example, a hundred copies of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that contain blank pages after the 87th.
Unfortunately, the bizarre happenings on the station more often prove annoying because the film has a set of rules that is ever-changing, allowing the story to introduce seemingly incredulous twists and turns—without, conveniently, needing any accountability for doing so.
That wouldn't necessarily be so much of a problem if the goals of the narrative were clear, but the film lacks a logical train of thought. Sphere seems to think that because bizarre things can happen they don't necessarily have to mean much of anything—as if the existence of the imagery and action pieces can stand alone without a solid context.
For a while, this approach works. The nature of the spaceship and the sphere is so initially compelling that every turn—especially once the team makes contact with an intriguing, frightening, child-like entity named "Jerry"—seems to be headed for a startling payoff.
Instead, the twists in the story lead to a number of stock disasters on board the team's underwater station. These disasters seem inspired more by other (better) movies like The Abyss (1989) and the original Alien (1979), than they do by the story's premise. In and by themselves they're okay, but, really, they're set pieces with no overriding meaning.
The bottom line is that this is a story where the action is arbitrary. What happens is ultimately not nearly as important as the slick polish Levinson and the performers put on it. I find that depressing, because Sphere seemed capable of so much more given the strength of its setup.
The disconnected mayhem also leaves little room for understanding the characters, who are jerked around by the plot so frequently that they never have consistent or believable personalities. Despite some effective performances—especially Jackson's distant strangeness—it's a disappointing waste of an exceptional cast. Hoffman's character works reasonably when he's not at the mercy of explaining the plot in long dialog scenes. Stone's character and particularly Jackson's, alas, seem to change directions at completely arbitrary and unwarranted times.
Some questions are never answered, like just how it is the ship was in such pristine condition if it had really been lying at the bottom of the ocean for 300 years. The film calls its own logic into question concerning this point on more than one occasion, as if trying to tell us something—but ultimately the notion is never completed. It's probably just as well, because the key mysteries of Sphere are most interesting before they're solved.
The film is an intriguing collection of somewhat neat ideas, but when the pieces are finally jammed together into one it doesn't work at all. Ultimately, Sphere's plot is just a big non sequitur that's watchable as it's being constructed in front of its audience. In some ways the movie actually benefits by being so disconnected. But its payoff and underdeveloped characters left me with an empty feeling.