Film Scouts Reviews


by Karen Jaehne

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Michael Crichton's books are always technological eye-openers. In a mere few hundred pages, he can transform a simple "what if?" into a thriller. It's only logical for a movie to embrace every thrill, yet not at the expense of the painstaking sci-fi that Crichton makes so credible. "Sphere" flunks the tough tests of science and does even worse with the soft stuff of fiction.

"Sphere" would have us believe that for an important, highly secretive deep-sea expedition to explore evidence of extraterrestrial life at the bottom of the ocean, the director of this enterprise (played by Peter Coyote through malevolent shades) uses a paper written many years earlier by Dustin Hoffman, a bewildered academic whose recommendations involved a rainbow coalition. Being politically correct only brings together ill-qualified and bad tempered folks to meet the visitor from outer space.

Hoffman's little team has no idea why they are there. Nobody has had a physical or been tested in any way for a dangerous mission. Thus, Dustin's woman, Professor Sharon Stone, his student lover from a previous decade, is now a model of feminist independence - which eventually leads him to think she can't be trusted. Dr. Sam Jackson, an African-American math-o who got his first Ph.D. at the age of 16, is also suspected of sabotaging the mission. Incidentally, a few others were originally involved, but they had to be sacrificed early on in order to prove the malevolence of the extraterrestrial computer. It also conveniently brings the survival of mankind down to a white European male fighting a woman and a black.

The only thing the alien visitor has going for it is its nasty sense of humor, making it a cousin of H.A.L. When the invader/computer introduces itself as Jerry, it announces, "Jerry is happy." Which makes Dustin wonder, "What happens when Jerry gets unhappy?" There was still an ounce of hope for the movie at that point, but it doesn't follow Jerry. Instead, it becomes "Alien" does "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" in "Waterworld", with Dustin Hoffman looking like he's ready to announce at any moment, "Hey, I can't swim."

In one of those connect-the-dots Arts & Leisure interviews, Dustin Hoffman complained to the New York Times about "being a good actor" which "is irrelevant in today's market... Good acting doesn't bring large numbers of people in on an opening weekend, does it?" He must have been thinking of his last stupid attempt at a big movie, "Virus", because "Sphere" was just about to open. Since then, Dustin has yet again failed to open a movie with good acting. Or maybe he is just prescient.

It's hard to blame "Sphere" on the actors. All the Mamets in the world could not have saved such a bad script. No wonder Levinson and Hoffman got together again for the low-budget quickie, "Wag the Dog". It was penance for getting so much money for so little. You can almost hear them muttering: "Sphere" today, gone tomorrow. 

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