Sphere (1998)


Introduction

Sphere is a 1998 American science fiction psychological thriller film directed and produced by Barry Levinson, and starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson. Sphere is based on the 1987 novel of the same name by Michael Crichton.

A spaceship is discovered under three hundred years’ worth of coral growth at the bottom of the ocean.

Outline

A spacecraft, presumed to be of alien origin, is discovered on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, estimated to have been there for nearly 300 years. A team of experts, including marine biologist Dr. Beth Halperin (Stone), mathematician Dr. Harry Adams (Jackson), astrophysicist Dr. Ted Fielding (Schreiber), psychologist Dr. Norman Goodman (Hoffman), and US Navy Captain Harold Barnes (Coyote), are assembled and taken to the Habitat, a state-of-the-art underwater living environment located near the spacecraft.

Upon examination of the spacecraft, they are perplexed to learn it is not alien at all, but rather American in origin. However, its technology far surpasses any in the present day. The ship’s computer logs cryptically suggest a mission that originated either in the distant past or future, but the team manages to deduce that the long dead crew were tasked with collecting an item of scientific importance. Norman and Beth discover the ship’s logs, with the last entry noting an “unknown event.” A holographic re-enactment of the event reveals that hundreds of years in the future the ship encountered a black hole, which apparently led to the ship crash landing in the ocean, back in the 1700s. Soon after, Norman and the others eventually stumble upon a large, yet perfect sphere hovering in the cargo bay. They cannot find any way to probe the inside of the sphere, as the fluid surface seems to be impenetrable. Upon observation, Norman ominously notes the sphere reflects everything in the room except them.

Once they return to the Habitat, Harry hypothesizes that everyone on this team is fated to die. Harry notes that the black hole is referred to as an “unknown event” in the future logs. However, here in the present they have knowledge of the historic event, yet it is unable to be explained later on. During the night, Harry returns to the spacecraft and is able to enter the sphere. Norman follows after Harry, where he finds him unconscious next to the sphere and returns him to the Habitat. The next day, the crew discovers a series of numeric-encoded messages appearing on the computer screens; the crew is able to decipher them and comes to believe they are speaking to “Jerry”, an alien intelligence from the sphere. They find Jerry is able to see and hear everything that happens on the Habitat.

A powerful typhoon strikes the surface, and the Habitat crew is forced to stay in the Habitat several more days. During that time, a series of tragedies strikes the crew, including attacks from aggressive jellyfish and a giant squid, and equipment failures in the base, which kill Ted and the team’s support staff. The survivors, Beth, Harry, and Norman, believe Jerry is responsible. Norman discovers that they had misinterpreted the initial messages from Jerry, and that the entity speaking to them through the computers is actually Harry himself, transmitted from his mind while he is asleep. Harry and Beth eventually realise that when Harry entered the sphere, he gained the ability to make anything he imagines a reality and conclude that all the horrors that have befallen the Habitat were manifestations of Harry’s fears.

Norman and Beth sedate Harry with enough sleeping drugs to put him into a dreamless sleep to prevent him from doing any further damage. When Norman is attacked by a snake, however, Beth realises that Harry alone could not have been responsible for everything that had happened on the Habitat and confronts Norman, accusing him of entering the sphere when he went to retrieve Harry. Beth’s suspicions prove to be correct, but after experiencing her own nightmarish vision, she confesses to Norman that she too entered the sphere. Upon being rejoined by Harry, the three of them realise that the crew of the ship must have also entered the sphere and ended up killing each other after being driven mad by their fears. Under the stress of the situation, Beth has suicidal thoughts which causes the detonation mechanisms on a store of explosives to engage, threatening to destroy the base and the spacecraft. They race to the Habitat’s mini-sub, but their combined fears cause them to re-appear back in the spacecraft. As a psychologist, Norman is able to see through the illusion. He triggers the mini-sub’s undocking process and overrides the others’ fears that they will not escape the destruction of the Habitat and spacecraft. The sphere is untouched by the explosions.

The mini-sub makes it to the surface as the surface ships return. As Beth, Harry, and Norman begin safe decompression, they realise that they will be debriefed and their newfound powers discovered. They agree to erase their memories of the event using their powers, ensuring the “unknown event” paradox is resolved. The sphere rises from the ocean and then accelerates off into space.

Cast

  • Dustin Hoffman as Dr. Norman Goodman.
  • Sharon Stone as Dr. Elizabeth “Beth” Halperin.
  • Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. Harry Adams.
  • Liev Schreiber as Dr. Ted Fielding.
  • Peter Coyote as Captain Harold C. Barnes.
  • Queen Latifah as Alice “Teeny” Fletcher.
  • Marga Gómez as Jane Edmunds.
  • Huey Lewis as Helicopter pilot.
  • Bernard Hocke as Seaman.
  • James Pickens, Jr. as OSSA Instructor.
  • Michael Keys Hall as OSSA Official.
  • Ralph Tabakin as OSSA Official.

Production

Hoffman joined the cast because of Levinson’s involvement. Hoffman and Levinson had collaborated on several prior projects, and Hoffman had faith that Levinson could raise the project beyond its script. Due to budgetary concerns, pre-production stopped in October 1996, and the script was revised. In the interim, Levinson directed Wag the Dog, which also starred Hoffman. Shooting on Sphere began in March 1997, with a budget that Variety estimates was $80 million. Shooting took place at a naval base on Mare Island in Vallejo, California. Principal photography ended in July 1997, after 68 days.

Release

Sphere initially had a Christmas release date but was moved forward to avoid competition. Warner Bros. released the film theatrically in the US on 13 February 1998, where it debuted in third place and grossed $37 million in total. Sphere did almost as well internationally, grossing $73.4 million worldwide.

Reception

Sphere received mostly negative reviews from critics.

Trivia

  • The jellyfish attack sequence used a combination of puppets, computer graphics imagery, and footage of real jellyfish, filmed at a nearby aquarium.
    • The footage of real jellyfish was played at three to five times its normal speed, to make the jellyfish appear more aggressive.
  • Many scenes, like Harry (Samuel L. Jackson) and Norman’s (Dustin Hoffman’s) conversation about making up the ULF report and dealing with Ted (Liev Schreiber), were completely improvised.
  • Samuel L. Jackson would work on this film during the week, and then work on Jackie Brown (1997) on the weekends.
  • Dustin Hoffman expressed some disappointment with the film.
    • He felt it was not yet ready to be released when it was.
    • There were many more issues that needed to be addressed, but they did not have the time to cover them all.
    • They had to deliver what they had, for the release date, which he felt was an incomplete film.
  • In the book, the sphere was supposed to be visualised as a “chrome coloured ball bearing” with “grooved convolutions” that acted as a door opening so that people could enter.
    • The movie originally had planned to use a sphere that had the same qualities (chrome ball bearing), but soon found out that if it was placed in a dark room, the reflection would look almost entirely black, and not as impressive.
    • The special effects designer and director Barry Levinson eventually decided to go with a “champagne” coloured sphere due to how it looked on-screen.
  • The film was shot in warehouses with specially constructed water tanks, rather than being filmed on the high seas because Warner Bros. did not want to repeat the mistakes of Waterworld (1995).
    • Filming it on the ocean would have sent the budget into the stratosphere, which is what crippled Waterworld’s chances at the box office.
    • They managed to trim the budget by $20 million, but despite all of their precautions, this movie still died a quiet death at the box office.
  • When Beth floods the med lab (at around 1h 50 mins), Norman dives for an oxygen tank.
    • While diving he accidentally hits his head against a table.
    • This was not scripted thus it occurred as a real accident.
  • Beth (Sharon Stone) was totally distrustful of Captain Barnes (Peter Coyote) in the early stages of scripting.
    • She believed that he was responsible for their predicament.
    • In a critical flooding scene, Beth intentionally locked Barnes inside a tank, and left him there to drown.
    • In the final script, this subplot was scrapped, and the death of Barnes was altered to an accident, with no involvement from Beth.
  • The Navy men subplot, that was featured in the book, was slated to be included in the film as well.
    • The original script had Norman talking to three mysterious men, appearing abruptly without explanation, who promised to rescue them.
    • While Norman was talking to them, the Navy men faded out and finally disappeared.
    • Apparently, this was another manifestation caused by the Sphere’s powers.
    • This scene was streamlined for the final shooting script by having Norman simply waking up and realising that the Navy men were just a dream.
    • The subplot was dropped from the finished film.
  • In the novel the surname of Dustin Hoffman’s character Norman is Johnson, but in the film it has been changed to Goodman.
    • The novel also contains a fifth team member, a marine biologist named Arthur Levine, who was omitted from the film.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Barry Levinson.
  • Producer(s):
    • Patricia Churchill … associate producer.
    • Michael Crichton … producer.
    • Peter Giuliano … executive producer.
    • Barry Levinson … producer.
    • Andrew Wald … producer.
  • Writer(s):
    • Michael Crichton … (novel).
    • Kurt Wimmer … (adaptation).
    • Stephen Hauser … (screenplay).
    • Paul Attanasio … (screenplay).
  • Music:
    • Elliot Goldenthal.
  • Cinematography:
    • Adam Greenberg.
  • Editor(s):
    • Stu Linder.
  • Production:
    • Warner Bros. (presents) (as Warner Bros.).
    • Baltimore Pictures.
    • Constant c Productions (as Constant C).
    • Punch Productions (in association with) (as Punch Productions, Inc.).
  • Distributor(s):
    • Warner Bros. (1998) (USA) (theatrical).
    • Roadshow Entertainment (1998) (Australia) (theatrical).
    • Warner Bros. (1998) (France) (theatrical).
    • Warner Bros. (1998) (Germany) (theatrical).
    • Warner Bros. (1998) (Argentina) (theatrical).
    • Warner Bros. (1998) (Japan) (theatrical).
    • Warner Bros. (1998) (Netherlands) (theatrical).
    • Warner Bros. (1998) (Sweden) (theatrical).
    • Warner Bros Pictures (1998) (India) (theatrical) (as Warner Bros F. E. Inc.).
    • Warner Bros. (1998) (Canada) (theatrical).
    • Warner Bros. (1998) (Finland) (theatrical).
    • Warner Bros. (1998) (Norway) (theatrical).
    • Warner Española S.A. (1998) (Spain) (theatrical).
    • Varus Video (1998) (Russia) (VHS).
    • Warner Home Video (1998) (Spain) (DVD).
    • Warner Home Video (1998) (Finland) (DVD) (VHS).
    • Warner Home Video (1998) (UK) (DVD).
    • Warner Home Video (1998) (Netherlands) (VHS).
    • Warner Home Video (1998) (Sweden) (VHS).
    • Warner Home Video (1998) (USA) (VHS) (pan and scan).
    • Argentina Video Home (1999) (Argentina) (DVD).
    • Argentina Video Home (1999) (Argentina) (VHS).
    • Audio Visual Enterprises (1999) (Greece) (VHS).
    • Sandrew Metronome Distribution Sverige AB (1999) (Sweden) (DVD).
    • Warner Home Video (1999) (Germany) (DVD).
    • National Broadcasting Company (NBC) (2001) (USA) (TV).
    • MTV3 (2001) (Finland) (TV).
    • SubTV (2002) (Finland) (TV).
    • Turner International India (2009) (India) (TV).
    • Warner Home Video (2009) (USA) (Blu-ray) (DVD).
    • Rete 4 (2016) (Italy) (TV).
    • Warner Home Vídeo (Brazil) (DVD).
    • Warner Home Vídeo (Brazil) (VHS).
  • Release Date: 11 February 1998 (Los Angeles, US) (Premiere).
  • Running time: 134 minutes.
  • Rating: 12.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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