Original release: February 13th,1998
Running time: 129 minutes
Director: Barry Levinson
Writers: Kurt Wimmer, Stephen Hauser, Paul Attanasio, Michael Crichton (novel)
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Peter Coyote
We’re fascinated by the idea of extraterrestrial beings. We’ve visualised and characterised them in countless ways in fiction, not only because we inherently dislike the idea of being alone, but also because their existence is not at all implausible.
There are two planets – Venus and Mars – in our tiny and insignificant solar system where the possibility of life is of interest and scrutiny. In addition to that, we see solid evidence of intelligent life every time we look in the mirror.
All of this speculation about aliens is interesting as well as a lot of fun, but how intelligent have we really become since the beginning? Encounters between different cultures here on Earth often turn violent still. Would we be able to remain calm and civilised if we came across beings from another planet?
Barry Levinson’s Sphere – a very faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name – speculates about the speculation of extraterrestrial life while scrutinising not them but ‘us’, looking at human nature closely in the face of our first encounter.
Psychologist Dr. Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman) is called by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to the site of a plane crash somewhere in the Pacific Ocean to help survivors deal with post traumatic stress disorder.
Upon arrival by helicopter, Norman is in for a few surprises. Dozens of United States Navy ships are scattered over a massive area and after landing he stumbles upon other scientists – all of whom he personally knows.
U.S. Navy Captain Harold Barnes (Peter Coyote) soon tells them there is no plane crash at all; a massive spacecraft has been found at the bottom of the ocean. Its size and design suggest superior technology and the thickness of coral growth on its surface indicates that it’s been there for three hundred years, so the spacecraft is believed to be of alien origin.
The film brings the characters to the story in an almost comic manner and adds them up to a beautifully dysfunctional group. It turns out that a few years earlier; Norman was paid by the administration of George H. W. Bush to write a report on how to deal with a possible encounter with alien beings. He took the money, but didn’t take the task too seriously; he recommended some of his scientist friends as a “team of experts” to handle mankind’s first encounter and he filled in the gaps by borrowing material from science fiction writers.
With Norman’s bogus report as the guidebook, it’s clear from the get-go the team was assembled without anticipating rather obvious problems. Mathematician Dr. Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson) and astrophysicist Dr. Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber) never liked each other and find it difficult to get along, while marine biologist Dr. Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone) had had an affair with Norman in the past and she now loathes him and represses her problems with prescription drugs.
The character set-up somewhat resembles a dysfunctional family; Norman and Beth standing in for the couple whose marriage is about to fall apart with Harry and Ted being the brothers in a perpetual state of competition. There’s no turning back for Norman, his report is a fraud and he’s forced to stand by it.
They descend to the ocean floor and stay in an underwater living environment called the Habitat that was set up near the spacecraft.
It doesn’t take long for the group to find out the spacecraft is not alien; their first venture inside proves it’s in fact an American craft, but the ship’s log contains entries from the future with the last one being an apparent encounter with a black hole. The mystery deepens when they find a strange looking spherical artefact the size of a small house.
The scientists soon begin to take turns with theories about the consequences of time travel and what the sphere’s purpose might be. However, the sphere itself will soon reveal its powerful secrets to the underwater visitors as they find themselves cut off from the surface indefinitely.
One of the main strengths of Sphere is its dealing with a first encounter without the distraction of aliens. Michael Crichton set out to explore human nature under these extraordinary circumstances – he’s crafted a story where there’s first contact, but there’s no alien.
Norman and the others theorise the sphere is an alien artefact that was found by the American spaceship in the future before its accidental falling into a black hole. This is what the filmmakers seem to have had in mind as well, but I’m not sure if Crichton was so conclusive about the origins of the sphere.
When looking at it inside the spaceship, it seems perfectly possible it’s actually an integral part of the ship, in what’s perhaps the first spacecraft in the history of mankind that’s capable of time travel.
The only thing that suggests the sphere having its own will in the film is the final scene of it emerging from the sea and flying into space – interestingly, there’s an alternate ending without this scene showing off special effects that’s closer to the original novel.
Norman also thinks the sphere has its own will because it doesn’t reflect them on its surface – as if the artefact made a choice not to. However, there are other possible explanations for this; if the sphere is a time travelling device, those reflections could simply be delayed due to the sphere’s ability to control time.
This just makes more sense to me than the theory of alien origin when it comes to understanding narrative logic. The sphere is more likely to be the core of the spaceship on a time travelling exploration – what the time travellers didn’t know is there’s an unexpected side effect to being in close contact with the device: psychosis with a twist.
This is the genius of Crichton’s story; the characters have every reason to believe they’re dealing with an alien artefact that has its own will and possibly wants to harm them, but the sphere is in fact a man-made device that causes unexpected delusions that won’t stay within the confounds of one’s mind.
Much like Castle Bravo, the thermonuclear hydrogen bomb that proved to be a lot more powerful than expected when it went off at Bikini Atoll in 1954, the sphere seems to be yet another scientific achievement that has unpleasant surprises in store.
Norman and the others nevertheless believe strongly they’re communicating with an alien being; therefore Sphere is an exploration of how we might collectively give in to our fears when first contact is around the corner. They distrust not just the alien but each other, which leads them from one crisis to another throughout the film. The film argues that in spite of all we’ve accomplished since the beginning of recorded human history, the most prevalent collective human emotion is still fear.
At the end of their ordeal, the scientists realise the psychosis they experienced could potentially be a very powerful force for good – if only they just used it that way. When Beth wonders about the possibility of this power getting into the wrong hands, Norman replies:
While the film was rushed through post-production, which resulted in a number of unresolved/unaddressed issues in the story, Sphere is nevertheless a thought-provoking film.
The characters are all interesting, possessing strong and unique personalities with great performances by the actors – which is a must in a movie dealing with human nature. Ultimately, Sphere argues that while we engage in fun speculation about aliens, we should also ask if we’re ready to meet them.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.