Twitter Plot Summary: A cast of big-name actors descend to the bottom of the ocean, only to find James Cameron did it first, and did it better.
Five Point Summary:
1. Big names, all at the bottom of the ocean. What could go wrong?
2. Something is amiss with the ship they find… Standard.
3. An argument with a computer (sort of). Mildly compelling.
4. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea x infinity.
5. So this finale… yeah, it needs more work.
If there’s one area of mostly untapped potential in the world of science fiction, it’s the “something peculiar at the bottom of the ocean” sub-genre. James Cameron’s The Abyss, whilst an incredibly long film, had a narrative that made sense, characters you cared for and a mystery at its core that engaged its audience. Sphere doesn’t tick any of those boxes, and is instead a jumbled, confused mess that is the film equivalent of a person who gets confused when trying to comprehend the simplest of situations.
We begin with Dustin Hoffman, a psychologist drafted in by the US Navy to investigate what is believed to be an alien ship lying on the seabed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He’s joined by an all-star cast including Sharon Stone, Samuel L Jackson, Liev Schrieber and Peter Cayote, all of whom portray fellow scientific and academic types and, in Coyote’s case, a Navy captain. They’re a motley bunch who we follow down into the depths, all unsure as to why they have been invited onto this mission and all with their own nuances and personality issues that will play a role later on.
Unfortunately Sphere suffers from apparently missing chunks of story, which is peculiar given that it’s 2.5 hours long. There’s an argument for saying that’s a deliberate move given the particulars of the story, but that would be too easy a get-out clause – it’s a missed opportunity for certain. It never makes good its promise to be an intelligent psychological thriller set at the bottom of the ocean, and in many instances – Samuel L Jackson reading 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, for example – it borders on becoming a parody. Its troubled production schedule did it no favours, clearly. It’s also battling against the tropes of the science fiction genre, never progressing beyond tired old cliches and the fatigue of having seen it all before.
There is at least some semblance of reverence to scientific fact, with the effects of depressurisation and the psychological effects of being isolated on the sea bed being the most prominent matters of discussion. Lucky for everyone that Dustin Hoffman was there to explain all of this. Other than the performances, which are all as you might expect given the list of names in the cast, this is the only solid positive that Sphere retains. For a movie audience, deference to scientific theory isn’t going to be enough to pull in the punters, and its box office return is a clear indication of that.
In hindsight Sphere would have been far improved by being adapted into a TV mini series rather than a film. Not only would the story have had time to breathe, but the characters would have had more time in which to develop and make their mark on the narrative. Instead we have a long film that still doesn’t have enough time to adequately explore its setting and its story, and borrows from a pantheon of other, better, science fiction features.