Several years ago, psychologist Norman Hoffman (Dustin Hoffman) drafted a report for the government detailing procedures for a possible first contact with an alien life form. Thinking it was a bureaucratic boondoggle, he whipped out a half-serious report that named several of his colleagues as members of the first contact team.
Now he has been called out to the South Pacific, where that very team has been assembled. There's mathematician Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), astrophysicist Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber), and biochemist Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), with whom Norman had a brief romantic fling several years before.
The team is there to investigate an alien spacecraft which apparently crashed into the bottom of the ocean 288 years before. Barnes (Peter Coyote), a military officer, is overseeing the operation, which involves transferring the team to a mobile habitat on the ocean floor. But they aren't quite prepared for what is uncovered in the spacecraft...something mysterious and profound...but possibly deadly.
James Cameron tackled similar subjects, but with much greater success, in his 1989 underwater epic, The Abyss. Here, despite the talented cast, many of the shocks lack impact, and the wonders just don't quite seem so wondrous.
Too often, it is left up to the dialogue to explain the mood and atmosphere. This is fine when the characters themselves are creating that mood, but when it is generated by their situation, the audience should be able to feel the dread without having it explained for us.
The cast is what saves this movie from being a disaster, though none of them are at the top of their form here. Hoffman manages to be the central link for the audience, even though his performance is rather flat. Samuel L. Jackson has a good turn as the mathematician who may think too much for his own good. Sharon Stone has the meatiest role, but never sells the audience that she is on the borderline of a breakdown.
A few of the sequences actually do work, and there are times when the film almost manages to create a mood. But these intermittent flaws eventually pass.
The film's final revelation was a little hokey in the book, and is even more so when writ large upon the screen. The film strives to be profound, but ends up being forgettable.
There are gleams here and there of several intriguing ideas, but they're never fully realized. If you relax and go with the flow, Sphere ends up being a mildly enjoyable, but, overall, an unsatisfactory experience. If you're looking for truly thoughtful science fiction, go out and rent Contact, and skip the Sphere. However, if you're just looking for a diversion, Sphere may fit your bill.
[PG-13 - sci-fi action including some startling images] (WB)