Memphis Flyer

DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson

REVIEWED: 02-23-98

Though the shine has hardly dulled from Wag the Dog, Dustin Hoffman and director Barry Levinson are at it again. This time, however, they go at something completely different – a sci-fi thriller with metaphysical overtones. In many ways, Sphere, based on a novel by Michael Crichton, is the antithesis of Wag the Dog. Where Wag the Dog is sharp, Sphere is very roundabout and coy. And while with Wag the Dog, you know they’re pulling your leg, with Sphere, you get completely jerked around.

In Sphere, Hoffman plays Dr. Norman Goodman, a psychologist who years ago made up a report for the Bush administration detailing how alien life forms should be handled if there should be a need. Part of Norman’s report was a sort of dream team for alien greetings, including a mathematician, a microbiologist, a physicist, and a psychologist. At the time, Norman was only goofing, never figuring that his ideas would be called on, so he just filled in names that were on hand. So when he’s called upon to test his theories, he finds himself face to face with the bratty Ben (Liev Schreiber), the physicist son of a friend, the suicidal Beth (Sharon Stone), whom Norman dumped a while back, and his old friend Harry (Samuel L. Jackson), an unsuspecting mathematician.

The foursome have been rounded up by the government to inspect a site in the depths of the ocean where a large spacecraft has recently been discovered. They are taken to a base set up beside the craft, where they are debriefed. Apparently, they’re told, the craft has been there for 288 years and, what’s more, it’s humming. So then, the psychologist, the physicist, the microbiologist, and the mathematician go on board to scope the place and happen upon a stories-high, vibrating golden sphere. But what exactly the object is or does isn’t instantly deducible. As they try to figure it out, things start to go screwy.

About three-fourths of the way through, as the body count rises and the team becomes mentally undone, Sphere starts to get interesting. The members turn on each other and form alliances and then drop them to accuse the other of something that may or may not be real. Sphere is especially adept at keeping the payoff shrouded, so as to work up a mood of stiff paranoia. But it feels a long time coming.

Maybe it’s the water. There seem to be a lot of movies lately (Titanic, Hard Rain, Alien Resurrection) in which actors are made to splash around. Maybe it’s the studios’ way of making them earn their paychecks. In Sphere, it serves almost as a buffer. Hoffman et al spend a lot of time trying to run or keep from drowning. Yet, for the most of the movie – despite the glowing sphere next door, an attack of killer jellyfish, the rattling of the base – they appear to be a little detached. And if they’re not scared, why should we be?

Their behavior makes sense in the end, which proves to be a warm and fuzzy disappointment that makes you wonder, Why bother? Hoffman’s character is the voice of reason and his performance is steady. His past roles show, however, that he’s best when he has some tic or flaw or any marked characteristic to wrap around. Here he’s given nothing, and it seems like a waste. Jackson, at least, gives his Tarantino character a rest. His Harry is serene, nearly a background presence, with only a few bursts of that big-grinned charisma sneaking its way in. Stone’s character is the emotional one, the one who cries and shakes – basically the girl of the movie. As for Schreiber, he makes some effort to put some force behind his part as the arrogant physicist, but as an indie-film regular, his big-budget roles are the ones most likely to be killed.

--Susan Ellis

Full Length Reviews

Capsule Reviews

Other Films by Barry Levinson
Liberty Heights
Wag the Dog

Film Vault Suggested Links
Deep Impact
The Postman
Species II

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