Things you’ll learn from watching “Sphere,” which you might also recognize as “Deep Rising,” “The Abyss” and a bevy of other underwater thrillers:
A. If you’re under several tons of water and you feel pressure in your ear, adjust your equalizer. (Might wanna check the bass and treble, too.)
B. Some venomous sea snakes are lethal only at night.
C. Jellyfish can be really mean.
D. Michael Crichton is running out of new material.
The movie is based on a Crichton novel from 1987, before “Jurassic Park” did brontosaurus box office, before “Disclosure” taught us that women are actually the ones doing the sexual harassing. From all appearances, it probably made for an “Andromeda Strain”-like good read, which puts it far ahead of this derivative, messy movie thriller (which the author also co-produced).
At least it’s an A-list flop. Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson and “Scream’s” Liev Schreiber slog through gamely as part of a special task force assembled to check out a spacecraft that seems to have crashed at the bottom of the ocean 300 years ago. Hoffman’s Dr. Goodman is a government psychologist and the architect of this crack scientific team, assembled in a report he once penned for the Bush administration. The subject: What to do in case of extraterrestrial contact. The problem: He made it all up.
Still, it must have been more coherent than this waterlogged mishap. “Sphere” will be encouraging to young, struggling filmmakers, if only to re-prove that experienced talent and gobs of cash doth not a great movie make.
There’s lots of surface splash, plenty of one-liners and the usual Crichton lust for jargon; the writer’s true fans will probably be willing to see around the gaping plot holes and papier-mache characters. Even the Pop Psychology 101 moments are fairly amusing. But director Barry Levinson, already so far away from the lean, biting “Wag the Dog,” never raises the material above the level of moment-to-moment thrills - some of which stand out quite well on their own - and visual dazzle.
The title character is a big, luminous orb tucked away in the underwater craft, a mysterious entity that provides the basis for Crichton’s metaphysical hokum. “Sphere” rolls and runs about frantically, trying to generate interest and excitement without stopping to catch its breath and tell us why we should care.
By the time the end has mercifully arrived, bringing with it a resolution that might have looked good on paper, it’s hard not to shake your head and wonder what exactly you’ve just seen.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “SPHERE” Location: Newport, Spokane Valley Mall, Post Falls, Showboat Credits: Directed by Barry Levinson, starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber, Queen Latifah, Marga Gomez, Huey Lewis, Bernard Hocke Running time: 2:12 Rating: PG-13