Ahoy there mateys! I am not a big movie watcher and have only ever reviewed one movie here at the Captain’s Quarters – total recall (1990) – and that was because of this year’s Sci-Fi Month. I blame this second review on Matey Sarah @ hamlets&hyperspace’s comments in that post who told me I should watch Sharon Stone in sphere. That book be one of me favourites and so I asked the First Mate what he knew about it (as he has seen practically every movie of the 80s and 90s) and he launched into a spiel about the movie that helped convince me that I had to watch it. Then I
ordered asked him to write a review because a movie being based on a book counts on a book blog right? So you get one from me and a bonus additional review from me crew. Please note that I write like I talk and the first mate writes like he thinks. Hope you enjoy!
Side note: No movie plot here from me and there will be spoilers. I will assume that everyone else previously saw this movie and/or read the book.
From the Captain:
I love Michael Crichton’s work and featured him in me Broadside No. 7. Sphere is me favourite book by this author. I have read the book multiple times over the years but I had a) never seen the movie and b) wasn’t sure I had even heard of it or just plain forgot about it’s existence. Turns out that I really enjoyed this movie despite the negative rap it seems to have gotten from the critics.
Sharon Stone of course was the impetus for watching the film. I absolutely loved her in total recall and was interested to see what her acting would be like in this. While I think she did a great job with what film material she was given, I do not remember the character Beth being so wishy-washy and mentally disturbed in the book. To be fair, I haven’t reread it in about a decade but the remembrances I have of her character in the book are that she was much stronger and aggressive. I do wonder if book version in me noggin would be the same if I read it now.
As for the two other main characters, I was not expecting Dustin Hoffman as Norman. He is not who I would have picked to be Norman for the film. Plus I have no recollections of him being so mean and vindictive in the book. That said, I do think that Hoffman’s acting was well done in the film. I did love Samuel L. Jackson as Harry. He was wonderful and brought nice moments of both insanity and levity to the film. I am also entertained that he was in the jurassic park movie too.
In terms of the secondary characters, I particularly liked Liev Schreiber. I went from wanting to punch him for obnoxiousness in the beginning to being genuinely sad and slightly heartbroken when he perishes later in the film. Talk about good acting! Also Peter Coyote as the military leader was excellent. It is rare in this kinda thriller that the lone military leader is portrayed as both having a conscience and being a decent and wonderful human being. I cannot remember if his character was so lovely in the book. I thought he was more of a caricature in the novel. And lastly on the acting front, it was nice that both undersea military crew were capable women. Of course one of them was Queen Latifah who death struggles were via jellyfish. But both women made their smaller parts shine.
The special effects and set design for the movie were just okay. Unlike total recall where the effects hold up well, sphere is kinda bland in terms of its design elements. Neither the space ship or the habitat are particularly interesting visually. I didn’t hate the design for the sphere itself but it wasn’t exciting either. Plus a lot of the underwater elements seemed unrealistic and silly. That said, the film’s sound, lighting, and editing departments did a rather decent job of delivering suspense and the sense of claustrophobia. I was surprisingly tense at times even knowing what was coming next.
But the absolute best element of the film for me was how twenty thousand leagues under the sea was showcased. I loved watching the book appear all over the habitat especially in the galley.
Watching this film certainly makes me want to reread the novel. Mehaps in 2020. Arrrrr!
Side note: Coincidentally the First Mate and me are listening to Crichton’s the great train robbery as our next joint audio book! I haven’t ever read it so it shall be fun.
From the First Mate:
One of the criticisms of Michael Crichton’s work that I’ve heard most often is that his ethos are those of a neo-luddite; that when you get down to it, the overall point of his work is “technology is gonna kill us.” The criticism seems often couched in a “how can a sci-fi writer hate technology so much” type of framing. And I just don’t see it. If anything, Crichton seems to place the blame for the trials that his characters go through squarely on their own shoulders. His novel “Sphere,” and the film adapted from it, are a perfect example of “people are the problem.”
I don’t believe I’d watched the film “Sphere” since it came out in ‘98, which was a year full of near miss sci-fi adaptations (“Godzilla,” “Lost in Space,” “New Rose Hotel,” “Phantoms,” “Avengers,” and “Blade”), films that felt like adaptations (“Soldier” and “Disturbing Behavior”), and some genuinely good sci-fi films (“Dark City,” “The Truman Show,” and “Pi”). “Sphere” kind of got lost in the shuffle that year. My memory of the film was that as an adaptation is was only okay, that I hated the visual of the sphere itself, and that none of the characters really fit how I had pictured them in the novel. When the Captain said that we should watch “Sphere” because we’d previously enjoyed Sharon Stone in “Total Recall,” I have to admit that I was not expecting to really enjoy the film.
To my delightful surprise, the film is way more enjoyable than I remembered. Functioning more as a thriller than as a sci-fi story, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect is the way tension in various scenes is so skillfully ramped up time and again. There’s a sense of wrongness about the environment of the underwater station that’s not unlike that of a haunted house. The interpersonal conflicts between the scientists feel mostly true and believable, especially the Beth/Norman and Ted/Harry conflicts.
We went in hoping for another kick-ass Sharon Stone performance and unfortunately the character doesn’t really get the opportunity to be that. Stone’s portrayal of a woman taken advantage of by her therapist is quite good. I think that she was trying to imbue the character with a bit of nuance, but the film is only interested in making her a temporary antagonist for about twenty minutes. Pretty good complex backstory exists solely for her to be “revenge seeking crazy bitch.” Not really what I was looking for.
Beyond Stone, most everyone is doing good work in this. Dustin Hoffman wasn’t the Norman that I pictured, but he’s got the psychologist tenor down pat. Liev Schreiber and Samuel L Jackson play off of each other so well that I almost wish they could’ve been in a different movie together (two scientists who have to work together against their will and save the day in some silly manner). The biggest surprise for me was Peter Coyote as Captain Barnes, a caricature of a military man in the novel here played as a real person with compassion for those under his charge.
Plotwise the film is basically a thriller version of “Forbidden Planet,” “Solaris,” or “The Lathe of Heaven.” Because humans are unable to control their unconscious minds, giving them the power to wish things into existence will result in tragedy. Because it’s a thriller, instead of simply having the equivalent of Ray thinking into existence the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the characters here obsesses over and manifest their anxieties and grudges. Because the sci-fi element (i.e., the wish granting power of the sphere) only exists to drive the thriller elements, the film could’ve very easily done without it and merely been a psychological thriller about a small crew of scientists turning on each other when ordinary things start going badly.
“Sphere” is an entertaining thriller with good tension and believable characters. It’s a shame that the sphere itself looks so bad.