Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Barry Levinson’s Sphere back from the dead.
Dir: Barry Levinson
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Peter Coyote
IMDb rating: 5.8
Metacritic rating: 35
Humanity sucks. This is the thesis statement of Barry Levinson’s extremely underrated “psy-fi” thriller, Sphere. Not only is it one of the more faithful adaptations of a Michael Crichton novel, it also plays like a feature length episode of The Twilight Zone (which is lovingly referenced), with a dash of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and a healthy dose of Forbidden Planet. The film is classic sci-fi; a look at the human condition through the exploration of ideas, only with a lick of late-90s techno-thriller paint.
Sphere’s set-up is positively Crichtonian, only the characters are terrible people, completely incompatible with one another
The set-up is positively Crichtonian (yep, that’s a word now). A rag tag group of scientists are convened by a mysterious government organisation to investigate an enormous 300-year-old spacecraft discovered thousands of feet under the Pacific Ocean. Upon entering the ship, they discover a strange alien sphere that bestows anyone who enters it with the power to manifest their thoughts into reality. The question then remains: What would you do with such immense power?
What makes Sphere different to other Michael Crichton stories with a similar set-up is the group of scientists who are gathered together for this mission; they are terrible people who are almost completely incompatible with one another. The psychologist Norman (Hoffman) is an opportunist and a charlatan, while biologist Beth (Stone) is emotionally unstable and vindictive. Harry (Jackson) is a mathematician and former child prodigy with an elitist streak and young astrophysicist Ted (Schreiber) has an inferiority complex and yearns for a Nobel Prize. These characters are key to the film’s unfolding struggle between reason and emotion.
As each member of the team enter the sphere and are granted its power, their own worst nightmares and fears become terrifying reality, with everyone else caught in the crossfire. The scientists, while at the top of their fields, are unable to realise what is actually going on for a good chunk of the film. They allow their professional rivalries and emotional pasts cloud their judgements, and – in the case of maths genius Harry – unleash an entity that is basically an externalisation of their own id.
All kinds of sub-conscious aquatic horrors are made manifest within the compacted environs of their deep saturation habitat – killer jellyfish, giant squid and venomous sea snakes come screaming out of the darkness. Out of control fires and floods threaten the team at every turn, appearing and disappearing as if from a bad dream. This supposed intelligentsia are left scrambling to fight back against the violence being perpetrated upon them, only to find they are doing it themselves, to one another. The object of the sphere itself becomes an apt metaphor, representing the insular nature of these scientists. So wrapped up in their own neuroses, they fail to see the forest for the trees.
Sphere is a reversal of Kubrick’s 2001. Instead of beyond the infinite, an alien artefact leads us into horrors of our imagination
The team is assembled as first contact for an extra-terrestrial event, and as Earth’s representatives they do a pretty lousy job. But then again, who better to represent humanity than a group of vain, opportunistic and depressed paranoids? This is the view of humanity at the centre of Sphere, and something audiences and critics could not quite respond to. Apparently, no one wanted to sit for two hours being told that as a race, intergalactically speaking, we are pretty much complete garbage. We still have a long way to go before we can even entertain the idea that we could ascend to the next stage of evolution, no matter how advanced we believe we are.
But these kinds of ideas are at the core of all great sci-fi. It is meant to question and challenge us, and reveal our true nature by showing us wonders, whether they be glorious or terrifying. On one level, Sphere is a reversal of the ultimate triumph of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Human beings get their hands on an alien artefact, but instead of it leading us beyond the infinite, it takes us down, deep, inside horrors of our own imaginings until we see through the glass clearly, that the monsters are not without, but within.
All images: Warner Bros