"Sphere" is an empty shell. Derivative of any number of famous sci-fi movies and as full of false promises as the Wizard of Oz, this portentous underwater "Thing" swims along with reasonable good humor for its first hour, then descends into mechanical and routine "suspense" sequences that fail to deliver what genre fans demand.

“Sphere” is an empty shell. Derivative of any number of famous sci-fi movies and as full of false promises as the Wizard of Oz, this portentous underwater “Thing” swims along with reasonable good humor for its first hour, then descends into mechanical and routine “suspense” sequences that fail to deliver what genre fans demand. Major star names will have to deliver the B.O. goods on opening weekend, because attendance will plummet fast when the word gets around, resulting in grosses considerably below the reported $100 million-plus budget. Warner Bros. isn’t going to get out of its rut with this one.

Basically a chamber piece, in which the handful of characters are confined to a very limited space, but produced on the most lavish possible scale, this low-voltage Michael Crichton tale falls between several different stools in the sci-fi arena: alien spaceship mystery, theological/philosophical inquiry, monster thriller, time travel adventure, close-quarters pressure cooker, and voyage into the mind.

Similarly, scraps from genre classics abound. Most immediately, the mysterious eponymous metal object and chatty computer call to mind “2001,” while the “monsters from the id” theme stems straight from “Forbidden Planet.” Beyond that, there are moments when one can hardly help but think of “Close Encounters,” “Contact,” “The Thing,” “Alien” and the internally mentioned “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

On the rather unlikely grounds that he once wrote a presidential report on what to do in the event of contact with alien life, psychologist Dr. Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman) is summoned to a remote Pacific site where group leader Barnes (Peter Coyote) throws him together with biochemist Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), with whom Goodman has a past, mathematician Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson) and astrophysicist Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber).

Cutting through the exposition quickly and with a degree of wit, pic immediately takes the hastily assembled crew a thousand feet down, where they view an amazing sight: a submerged spacecraft nearly a half-mile long that, as determined from the amount of coral growth on it, must have crashed there 288 years before.

An investigation turns up human remains and incredible evidence that it was a U.S. ship, but the main revelation is an enormous, shimmering, golden sphere seemingly made of liquid metal, an object that is capable of reflecting or not reflecting its beholder at various times. Convinced that there is life within the sphere, Harry devises to apparently enter it, and from then on takes on a distracted air, sleeping through emergencies and obsessively reading “20,000 Leagues.”

Among the disruptive events are an escape sub’s inexplicable disconnection from the Habitat base station, a power shortage, the murderous turn of supposedly benign jellyfish, the sudden appearance of hundreds of large eggs floating down from above, attacks by some particularly nasty and toothsome sea serpents, and the abrupt announcement by a touchy computer named Jerry — seemingly the voice of the sphere — that, “I Will Kill You All.”

Unfortunately, nearly all the peril stemming from the above feels artificial and manufactured simply to generate a little excitement. Little of it is built up to in a suspenseful way, and some of what is explicitly announced never even turns up.

Pic is divided into named chapters, such as “The Ride Down,” “The First Exchange” and so on, and the one entitled “The Monster” shows nothing other than a big shape on a radar screen. Amazing what a big budget will buy you nowadays.

Except when the characters are tentatively venturing out into the deep to check this or that, most of the running time is devoted to two or more of them having intense conversations about what’s going on.

The only emotional component derives from the neurotic Beth still not having got over the way Norman treated her when she was his patient and student many years before, and her instability quickly becomes wearisome. Perhaps especially because the role is played by the normally self-assured and confident Stone, one waits in vain for somebody to just shake her and tell her to snap out of it.

With the big action set pieces falling flat, the question of what all this is supposed to amount to begins looming larger and larger. The weighty answer lies deep, not inside the buried spacecraft, but inside the characters themselves, who begin to “manifest” their greatest fears once exposed to the sphere. How they then deal with their fears, and consequent insight into the nature of the Other and the Truth, represents the distinctly anticli-mactic wrap-up.

Director Barry Levinson long ago proved his skill with actors, which is not particularly put to the test here, although it is hard to go wrong with the likes of Hoffman, Stone, Jackson, et. al., even if they are all underused here in shallow roles.

Indie stalwart Liev Shreiber incongruously pops up in these overproduced surroundings, while what Queen Latifah and performance artist Marga Gomez are doing here as anonymous Habitat technicians is anybody’s guess.

Shot entirely in soundstages installed at the abandoned Mare Island Naval Shipyard at Vallejo in Northern California, pic has a deliberately claustrophobic feel that is punctuated at moments by underwater spectacle and action.

All technical work is smooth, notably Adam Greenberg’s mood cinematography, Stu Linder’s nimble editing — particularly in the first half — Norman Reynolds’ crafty production design and special effects all around. Elliot Goldenthal’s very listenable score happily avoids most of the cliches of the genre.

Sphere

(Sci-fi thriller --- Color)

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Baltimore Pictures/Constant c production in association with Punch Prods. Produced by Barry Levinson, Michael Crichton, Andrew Wald. Executive producer, Peter Giuliano. Directed by Barry Levinson. Screenplay, Stephen Hauser, Paul Attanasio, adaptation by Kurt Wimmer, based on the novel by Michael Crichton.

Crew

Camera (Monaco Film Lab color, Otto Nemenz Arriflex widescreen), Adam Greenberg; editor , Stu Linder; music, Elliot Goldenthal; production design, Norman Reynolds; art direction, Mark Mansbridge, Jonathan McKinstry; set design, Dawn Swiderski, Bill Beck, Gilbert Clayton, Michael Goldman, Erin Kemp, Nancy Mickelberry, Nick Navarro; set decoration, Anne Kuljian; costume design, Gloria Gresham; sound (Dolby digital/DTS/SDDS), Steve Cantamessa; sound design, Richard Beggs; visual effects supervisor, Jeffrey A. Okun; digital visual effects and animation, Cinesite; prosthetic and animatronic effects, Steve Johnson's XFX; visual FX miniatures and photography, Grant McCune Design; associate producer, Patricia Churchill; assistant directors, Katterli Frauenfelder, Cara Giallanza, Robert Huberman; second unit director, David Ellis; second unit camera, Gary Capo; casting, Ellen Chenoweth. Reviewed at the Century Plaza Cinemas, L.A., Feb. 9, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 133 min.

With

Dr. Norman Goodman - Dustin Hoffman Beth Halperin - Sharon Stone Harry Adams - Samuel L. Jackson Barnes - Peter Coyote Ted Fielding - Liev Schreiber Fletcher - Queen Latifah Jane Edmunds - Marga Gomez
Camera (Monaco Film Lab color, Otto Nemenz Arriflex widescreen), Adam Greenberg; editor, Stu Linder; music, Elliot Goldenthal; production design, Norman Reynolds; art direction, Mark Mansbridge, Jonathan McKinstry; set design, Dawn Swiderski, Bill Beck, Gilbert Clayton, Michael Goldman, Erin Kemp, Nancy Mickelberry, Nick Navarro; set decoration, Anne Kuljian; costume design, Gloria Gresham; sound (Dolby digital/DTS/SDDS), Steve Cantamessa; sound design, Richard Beggs; visual effects supervisor, Jeffrey A. Okun; digital visual effects and animation, Cinesite; prosthetic and animatronic effects, Steve Johnson's XFX; visual FX miniatures and photogra-phy, Grant McCune Design; associate producer, Patricia Churchill; assistant directors, Katterli Frauenfelder, Cara Giallanza, Robert Huberman; second unit director, David Ellis; second unit camera, Gary Capo; casting, Ellen Chenoweth. Reviewed at the Century Plaza Cinemas, L.A., Feb. 9, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 133 min.

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