Entry updated 14 March 2022. Tagged: Film.
Film (1998). Warner Bros presents a Baltimore Pictures and Constant c production in association with Punch Productions. Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Paul Attanasio, Stephen Hauser and Kurt Wimmer, based on the novel Sphere (1987) by Michael Crichton. Cast includes Peter Coyote, Marga Gómez, Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L Jackson, Queen Latifah, Liev Schreiber and Sharon Stone. 134 minutes. Colour.
The US Navy calls in the experts in Biology, Mathematics, Physics and Psychology suggested by the paper written by trauma-psychologist Dr Norman Goodman (Hoffmann) when it discovers an extra-terrestrial craft embedded Under the Sea into 17 yards of Pacific coral, little realizing that Goodman wrote the report about what to do "in the event of an alien Invasion" in order to make $35,000 in fast money from the first Bush administration (see Politics). "I borrowed from good writers," Goodman tells old-flame and former patient, marine biologist Dr Beth Halperin (Stone): "Isaac Asimov, Rod Serling." "That's what the little green men are saying these days?" asks incredulous mathematician Dr Harry Adams (Jackson): "Take me to your therapist?" The Linguistics of the craft's onboard Computers reveal it to be of American origin from an occluded start-point in Time. "It could be 2043 or 1643 and I don't know which is weirder," says Halperin, sorting through the remains of human astronauts whose Space Flight was cut short by their violent reaction to an "UNKNOWN ENTRY EVENT". Confused astrophysicist Dr Ted Fielding (Schreiber) theorizes that this may have been some kind of impromptu Time Gate caused by the sudden appearance of a Black Hole. "It's curious," says Adams. "Ted did figure it out – Time Travel. And when we get back, we're gonna tell everyone. How it's possible, how it's done, what the dangers are. But then why fifty years in the future when the spacecraft encounters a black hole does the computer call it an 'unknown entry event'? Why don't they know? If they don't know, that means we never told anyone. And if we never told anyone it means we never made it back. Hence, we die down here. Just as a matter of deductive logic."
The only answer to this disordered melange of plot-points is the enormous golden orb the craft has brought back from its exploration of deep space. "That's a perfect sphere," says Fielding, "... a message in itself," prompting allusions from those assembled to Zen Mythology and the drawing of a perfect circle by Renaissance artist Giotto di Bondone (circa 1267-1337) and thereby activating fears of the artefact's being "a Trojan horse". "It's reflecting everything but us," says Goodman of the sphere's writhing, mercury-like surface. "Whatever it is, it's alien," says US Navy Captain Harold Barnes (Coyote).
These first forty minutes or so of Sphere are entertaining enough: the film is all-too-obviously intended as an underwater knock-off of Alien (1979) and one moreover which trails in the wake of James Cameron's First Contact-in-the-ocean thriller The Abyss (1989), but the Humour the A-list cast manages to inject into the interplay of their characters soon gives way to the cumulative absurdity of the Metaphysics of their reactions to the Mysterious Stranger who seems to reside at the heart of the sphere. The more the film tries to explain "what is really going on", the more Sphere reveals how little it really has to say about human agency and motivation, its own relationship to the SF Megatext, or even its fragmentary rapport with the rest of science fiction Cinema. The giant squid from Jules Verne's Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870 trans Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas 1872) that forms such an integral part of the Michael Crichton novel Sphere (1987) is here reduced to an offscreen Monster, an elision that is the result, one would assume, of the same budgetary constraints that halted shooting on Sphere between October 1996 and March 1997, during which time star Hoffmann and director Levinson worked on Media Landscape satire Wag the Dog (1997), a far more persuasive examination of how power dynamics affect points of view. Paul W S Anderson's nightmare-sphere-in-the-hull-of-a-ship movie Event Horizon (1997) arranges its Horror in SF Clichés to far more atmospheric effect, and Sphere's "let's just agree to forget everything that happened" denouement pretty much obviates its plot, even if it does not quite contradict the central Time Paradox described by Harry Adams. The film suffers even more by comparison to the analysis of the tension between human intentionality and scientific objectivity at the heart of the adaptations by Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh of the Stanisław Lem novel Solaris (1961; trans 1970; new trans 2011 ebook) (see Solaris [1971; 2002] for more), the themes of which seem to inform Sphere's depiction of the guilty feelings psychologist Goodman harbours about Halperin's attempt at suicide when he broke off their affair.
The box office failure of Sphere and that of the subsequent novel adaptation Timeline (2003) curtailed Michael Crichton's reputation as the most successful of the Mainstream Writers of SF working in Hollywood, though the recent Near Future Television adaptation of Westworld (2016-current) has restored his America-as-postmodern-amusement park theme (see California) to popular consciousness. [MD]
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