Sphere is the same shape as a Star Trek episode. It’s a little longer with a little higher production value, but the basic shape of science fiction projected onto a modern human psyche is the same.
The lead character of Sphere is a psychologist played by Dustin Hoffman. That alone tells you that the movie’s approach is not laden with testosterone and explosives. Norman (Hoffman) is teamed with a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson), a biologist (Sharon Stone), and a physicist (Liev Schreiber) to investigate a 300-year old wreck of a spaceship on the ocean floor.
The reason these scientists are called in (and not, say, archaeologists or cosmologists) is that signs of life have been detected on the inside of the wreck. It appears we are about to make first contact with an alien species.
The scientists settle into their underwater headquarters, then venture out to the wreck. They make their way inside and discover an airtight, functioning ship. What’s more, they discover human remains and words written in English. It seems impossible since coral growth tells them that the wreck has been buried for nearly 300 years. The only explanation is that some future travelers must have come back in time and wrecked on Earth.
Investigating this mystery and piecing together the events of the crash would have been a satisfying, interesting story. But the mystery is superficially explained and then left by the wayside when the scientists discover a perfect, shimmering, 30-foot sphere in the ship.
Harry (Jackson) is left at the sphere for a moment while the others investigate another room. While they are gone, Harry seems to enter the sphere. Barnes (Peter Coyote), the commander, sees it on the monitor and tells the others to go check it out. They rush back to the sphere only to find Harry, not in the sphere, but laying unconscious next to it. They haul him back to HQ to recover.
Once there, they begin to receive messages from the sphere. An alien entity named “Jerry” speaks to them through their computer screens. Luckily, Norman is a psychologist and is suited to the task of communicating with and understanding this alien. Finally, it seems, they have someone to answer their questions.
But Jerry only speaks intermittently, and he doesn’t tell the scientists very much. What’s worse, their conversations are often interrupted by mysterious happenings at the undersea base. The power goes off. A giant squid attacks the station. Normally-peaceful jellyfish swarm and kill a diver.
The next paragraph may spoil the ending, so read at your own risk.
Turns out that the unexplained phenomena are being caused not by “Jerry,” but by Harry. Since he entered the sphere, Harry’s dreams are manifested in the real world. His nightmares cause real damage to the station. Before long, the survivors realize they have to get to the surface or they will die in the damaged and crumbling structure. If they do survive, they will have to figure out how one might live a normal life with this awkward “ability.” That ending is an interesting psychological take on the usual science fiction film. The film is resolved in the mind, and not in a space dogfight.
Nevertheless, Sphere isn’t a great film. There are holes in the plot, like the computer mis-translating part of an encoded message (but only part of it). Or the biologist saying that deepwater sea snakes (deeper than light can penetrate) are “nocturnal.”
Also, though I haven’t read Crichton’s book, the movie felt badly adapted. For example, the ship from the future is tantalizingly introduced, then abandoned as the “sphere” story line is picked up. (The movie would have been more focused if it had completely discarded the wrecked spaceship subplot.) Later, when Jerry started talking with the crew, it seemed like he would be the key to the movie, but then that too was discarded. These ideas were probably followed up in the book, but the movie introduced them as important, then ignored them. A red herring or two is acceptable in a mystery, but in a sci-fi drama, they are merely annoying.
I wanted to like Sphere as a genre-buster. It shunned space action for a more psychological take on the science fiction genre. It was a valiant effort, but in the end it was too unfocused to make a good story. I didn’t hate it, but it was no better than a mediocre “holodeck” episode on Star Trek: not a bad way to kill some time, but only if there’s nothing else on.