Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Sphere Film Review

SphereHere we are once more, toward the end of another month as May comes to a close. Consequently, bringing one more book-film combo into range of our duo post series. Enabling us, the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I, to uncork the next review in parallel. As is our modus operandi, the wordy one will look at a novel well-known enough to later be grabbed up and adapted by Hollywood movie makers, which I will review.

Yet again, we take on a techno-thriller by the famed bestselling author, the late-Michael Crichton. This our third time with the writer who helped define this hybrid genre of stories with his game-changer, “The Andromeda Strain”. Sphere his sixth work of fiction1, published in 1987. My colleague Rachel will scrutinize said novel that was the source material for Barry Levinson’s 1998 film adaptation. The wordy one’s book review can be found here:

Sphere by Michael Crichton

A brief synopsis of the film: Dr. Norman Goodman has been flown thousands of miles to a distant part of the South Pacific to help with what he thinks is the site of a plane crash. He a psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress cases of survivors. However, it’s a ruse. Part of a clandestine government project 1000 feet below the surface where Navy divers have discovered an object half-a-mile long, resting on the ocean floor.

Something 300 years old. Goodman now part of a crack team of scientists deployed into the depths to investigate the astonishing discovery of the strange spacecraft. Finding something even more mind-boggling… a perfect metal sphere. What’s the secret behind the vessel and alien object? Especially when mysterious manifestations begin picking off the crew one by one? Who or what is creating these, and will they live to tell?

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

Harry: “Are you a religious man, Norman?”
Norman: “Atheist, but I’m flexible.”

Where to begin with this one. Michael Crichton being an early influence in my teen years, and all. Certainly, I saw Sphere quite awhile ago, having skipped the novel and some bad reviews, and trusted a studio to make at least a half-hearted attempt at giving the perennial chart-topping author, who made a career based on science-fiction and technology, a proper screen translation. Warner Bros. appeared to do that. Assigned the director of Diner, The Natural, Rain Man and others to this for a big budget production… then screwed us.


Having finally read the novel, this is pretty unforgivable. If you just go by the motion picture, you’re going to be pretty disappointed anyway. I know I was that way years ago, but there’s always room for Jell-o…er jellyfish2. No doubt, Barry Levinson’s film carried a good bit of box office potential going in. Pretty plain why execs would line up the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson for this. Obviously fueled with what Steven Spielberg pulled off with Jurassic Park a mere five years earlier.

And you can’t blame the film bombing at the box office on the lack of dinosaurs, either.

What you had was a fairly compelling story — using a variation of The Andromeda Strain template — that could have made its sci-fi premise an interesting one for the big screen. What audiences received for their ticket buying pleasure was a cross between The Abyss (the original, not James Cameron’s director’s cut), Forbidden Planet (without the Shakespeare…or even an adorable robot), not to mention the horror aspect that knocked down Danny Boyle’s Sunshine a few notches the next decade over. But hey, I’m not bitter…


“I want a full name for my report. I’m not putting in my report that I lost a crew member on a deep-sat expedition to find an alien named “Jerry.””

To be sure, Michael Crichton shouldn’t altogether be given a free pass here. By this point in his career and somewhat going forward, there was a formula forming by now. Group of knowledgeable scientists…an extraordinary and momentous discovery…something goes wrong…cut to the chase scene. Certainly, for his fans it’s why we as thriller devotees read his titles. Sphere fit the bill, and I’m glad I finally read it. Although, I wouldn’t say it’s in his top-tier. Just wish Sphere, the movie, could have been closer to the book.

Okay, maybe partially.

Facets of the film were kind of fascinating. Production values and SFX (well, until the studio docked $20 million from the budget) were decent for a sci-fi thriller. Along with Levinson’s ability to get good work from notable actors, which this director was known for. Neither was totally to blame for what we got, speaking as a frustrated viewer. The misplaced mix of tones and scenes we ended up with3 did that. I swear, when each big name delivered a evil conniving look, the kind all horror movies seem to exhibit, we’d been hosed.

Can’t condemn the supporting cast, either. Peter Coyote did that ‘Peter Coyote’-thing of his, but well. Had forgotten Liev Schreiber, even Huey Lewis, were in this…maybe that says something. Still, you had to know Queen Latifah’s early film role got her the thankless job, which any Star Trek redshirt or African-American in a horror movie filled: be early fodder for the plot. Jeezus! My daughter, who watched with me, asked, “Why did they kill Latifah, Dad?” I said, “Because Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t do it at this stage of his career.”

Of course, the very next year we got Deep Blue Sea…so what do I know.

sphere - deductive logic

I’m being a tad harsh on Sphere, I know. There were moments of absorbing science-fiction represented. The least of which portrayed professional, highly intelligent characters as petty and insecure like the rest of us mortals. That was a side benefit, I’m sure. For all that, time travel, and/or being given the power to manifest your thoughts and fears in the present by advanced alien technology…oops…there I go again citing a better movie4…were angles worth exploring on film. Just wish they’d have done it here, or at least better.

“You see? It’s curious. Ted did figure it out – time travel. And when we get back, we 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.”

Parallel Post Series

  1. Under his real name, at least…Crichton published under a few nom de plumes during his writing career. Coincidentally, Rachel and I both selected works by this author for our 2015 schedule. Mine will be his fourth novel, and I promise to give it equal scrutiny. 
  2. Admittedly, the jellyfish attack sequence was, visual effects-wise, the best scene of the film. “…used a combination of puppets, computer-generated images, and footage of real jellyfish filmed at a nearby aquarium. The footage of real jellyfish was played at three to five times its normal speed to make the jellyfish appear more aggressive.” 
  3. “Dustin Hoffman expressed some disappointment with the film. He felt it wasn’t yet ready to be released when it was. There were many more issues that needed to be addressed but they didn’t have the time to cover them all. They had to deliver what they had for the release date, which he felt was an incomplete film.” ~ IMDB 
  4. “In return, that ultimate machine would instantaneously project solid matter to any point on the planet. In any shape or color they might imagine. For any purpose, Morbius! Creation by mere thought.” ~ Commander J.J. Adams, Forbidden Planet

18 Responses to “Sphere Film Review”

  1. Cavershamragu

    Apparently they had so much trouble just getting it made, with delays and eventual cast changes, that one wants to be sympathetic – but you are 100% right here, despite the genuinely tense jellyfish sequence (which in a way I thought was too scary in context) but it doesn’t work and Levinson is surely the completely wrong person to bring in on a SF project. I almost wish they’d take another crack at the book – thanks for this, it’s made me want to read the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. le0pard13

    We’re in agreement, Sergio. Definitely, the book is the only way to take in this Crichton tale. So much better, and with a much better ending. Thanks, my friend.


  3. ruth

    I had no idea this was based on Michael Crichton! Well that automatically made this sounds VERY intriguing. Great cast too!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rachel

    Wholeheartedly agree with all of this. The book has a lot that could be adapted well so when I first saw the movie I wanted so very much to like it that I made all kinds of excuses but eventually had to just accept that not every adaptation is going to work out. It’s a shame but with all the reboots these days I assume it’ll have another chance eventually.

    Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • le0pard13

      One would hope someone would take a crack at this. Unfortunately, Hollywood really only remakes successful works. Unlike what George Carlin said should happen (paraphrasing), “It’s the bad movies that need to be *remade*.” Thanks so much for suggesting the title, Rachel. Glad I finally took in the book.


  5. Ted Saydalavong (@TSayda)

    I was also a huge Michael Crichton fan, I read this book way back in my junior year of high school. I liked it but didn’t think it would work as a film, mostly because I thought James Cameron already perfected the alien in the water genre with THE ABYSS. When the film was announced, I was kind of excited but then I remember it got moved from a summer release to late winter, then I knew it’s going to stink. Sure enough it sucked big time.

    Nice overview Michael, I totally agree with you here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • le0pard13

      Yeah, that was the telltale sign this was in trouble, wasn’t it? I do like the underwater scenes, but the rest was a disappointment. Agreed about Cameron. Thank you, Ted. Much appreciated (along with the share). 😀


    • le0pard13

      All credit goes to Rachel. Good title for this series as it gave us a chance to compare the original book material to the final film product. Thank you very much, Mark! 🙂


  6. jackdeth72

    Hi, Michael:

    Very interesting critique of a film that was all over the map for me. Levinson’s area of expertise is dialogue. And it seemed the cast kept talking around in circles while not doing much of anything.

    At least ‘The Abyss’ and ‘Leviathan’ had interspersed humor mixed with cool looking model work and action. While watching ‘Sphere’ felt excessively long. With hints of a “Vanity Film” gone boringly wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • le0pard13

      Good point about Levinson and the film, Kevin. The water work in ‘The Abyss’ and ‘Leviathan’ was far superior and the humor better. Thanks, my friend. 🙂



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