I’ve read all but one of Michael Crichton’s books (The Great Train Robbery) and seen all but three of his book-to-film adaptations (The Great Train Robbery, The Andromeda Strain, and Congo). Of the Crichton books that I’ve read, Sphere is my favourite. So, as you might have guessed, I was really looking forward to seeing how well the movie adaptation of Sphere turned out.
Sphere is an early Crichton book. It’s also one of his best books. Though all of his books are interesting and include interesting ideas, some of them don’t take full advantage of the ideas presented. And of those, the movie adaptations always come out worse than the books. Sure, the book Jurassic Park had a good idea and a good director behind it, but as a movie it was completely wrong. It was cut down to a shallow and somewhat boring movie that drove people to the theatres because of its amazing sound and special effects. The Lost World was a weak book, which created an even weaker movie. Disclosure and Rising Sun had some good ideas and came out OK onscreen. Sphere makes it almost unscathed from book to screen.
Sphere is written in a way that it is hard to give a synopsis of the story without giving away crucial plot points. So, I’ll work my way around the plot points. Sphere follows Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman, this characters name is Norman Johnson in the book) a psychologist who wrote a paper for the Bush administration about policies and procedures if ever an alien species were to come to Earth. In his paper, the Goodman Paper, Norman outlines a group of individuals who would form a team that would meet with the aliens. That included himself, a biochemist (Sharon Stone), a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson), and an astrophysicist (Liev Schieber).
What we find out is that there has been an apparent spaceship crash in the middle of the Pacific and this team of experts is gathered together to greet whatever is on the ship. But, the twist is that the ship has been underwater for almost 300 years. We also find out that Norman wrote the Goodman Paper not as a serious paper but to earn some extra cash. “Whoever reads government documents?” Norman tries to explain.
Like all other Crichton books and movies, Sphere is both entertaining and somewhat educational. But, let’s not put too much emphasis on the latter. Sphere though is highly entertaining and the first half of the film is captivating. The latter half of the film gets a little water logged and we kind of slush through it. It is not as bad as it sounds though.
Barry Levinson directs Sphere and with Sphere Levinson has two movies on the market right now both of them starring Dustin Hoffman. The other film is Wag the Dog, which is a smarter and stronger film than Sphere. Levinson has a style in his films that is hard to describe. The style is quick with flashy cuts during dialogue, but it’s hard to nail down. It is a fascinating style. Levinson is able to keep the film moving along at a fast pace and keep the scares coming. Most of the scares are more psychological than the type where something jumps out at you.
The script by Stephan Hauser and Paul Attanasio is tight and follows closely to the book. But, don’t go for a bathroom break or to get food, you’ll miss a lot if you do. The script is a bit tighter than it should be, squeezing in a lot of material. The script doesn’t take itself all too seriously at all times. There is a high level of humor running through the script to ease some of the tensions brought on by Levinson’s direction.
With all book-to-movie conversions there are going to be cuts from the book to the script. And there are many cuts from the book to the script for Sphere. Though many are not important, there are some interesting things that were cut which I would have liked to see in the film. Some of them include the form fitting chairs, more of the interior of the spaceship, and the huge battle with the monster. My only big complaint is that there are too many unanswered questions left after the movie is over (and this goes for the book also). I would have like to have more explanation of what happened and how things happened.
Performances are all strong. I originally thought that the casting was a bit strange; come on Dustin Hoffman in another action movie? He looked highly uneasy in Outbreak can he really pull this one off? Hoffman does well in Sphere. Sharon Stone was another that I doubted, but her performance is strong also. I loved her new short haircut. Nice. The only one that I thought was cast perfectly was Samuel L. Jackson. The part of Harry Adams was custom made for Samuel L. Jackson.
The obvious comparison for Sphere, at first, is a comparison to James Cameron’s The Abyss. But, as you find out after the first few minutes of Sphere is that the two movies are far apart. Cameron’s The Abyss has a stronger story with more fleshed out characters and better underwater cinematography. In comparison Sphere’s characters are not one dimensional, but they are also not as well written as Cameron’s Bud and Lindsey. And the underwater cinematography in Sphere is a bit more murky and hard to make out than The Abyss.
There are some things to keep in mind when viewing Sphere. In the early scenes of the movie look for Huey Lewis as the helicopter pilot. I thought he looked familiar but couldn’t put a finger on it. Sphere also continues with Hollywood’s obsession with minorities being killed off first. This time it’s Queen Latifah (Set It Off) getting the ax first.
To date Sphere is the best movie adaptation of a Crichton book. And since it is my favourite Crichton book, I’m happy that it is such a good conversion. One more thing that was left out and I thought should have been in the movie was the little twist at the end of the book. This twist made the book more enjoyable than the film. If you like Crichton’s writing, especially his early stuff, then Sphere will be a good choice for you. Don’t Miss Sphere at the theatres. This is a fun film that will keep you at the edge of your seat for the entire running length.