You can look at Sphere two ways. There's the rose-tinted official view that it's a "terrifyingly suspenseful science-fiction thriller, based on the bestseller by Michael Crichton"; or there's the honest, "just seen it" view that Sphere is another of Crichton's lightly-scripted techno-fables with a familiar plot (small group of people tinker foolishly with advanced technology that then tries to kill them), but set underwater.
And although you hope that Wag The Dog director Barry Levinson has turned this deep-sea mystery into an atmospheric movie, you quickly discover that he has whisked a fairly forgettable novel into an even more forgettable, big-budget stiff.
The populist demands of an $80 million blockbuster have left an intriguing premise clogged by clichéd, suspense-free action. Trimmed and chopped into chapter-style nuggets (with titles like The Spacecraft, The Analysis, The Monster etc), it starts well enough. The opening titles are quirkily hallucinogenic and there are some sharp plot twists. The rag-tag band of dysfunctional scientists (Stone the biochemist, Hoffman the psychologist, Schreiber the astrophysicist and Jackson the mathematician) also manage to wring a few laughs from the set-up of Sphere's science-heavy plot.
Then it all falls apart. The assembled boffins discover a golden sphere inside the spaceship, unleashing an unseen, malevolent alien power (called Jerry). It torments them with a school of giant killer-jellyfish, some computer chit-chat (""I will kill you all"") and a diver-slicing giant squid. At the same time, everything that can go wrong on their tiny, metallic home duly does - depressurisation, leaks, fires and a storm which forces the surface support ships to leave, stranding the fidgety scientists on the ocean floor.
But through all this, Sphere is neither terrifying nor exciting. It's no good having a story that's 30 per cent set-up and 70 per cent pay-off if the pay-off is a vacuous collection of flimsy set-pieces with characters that you don't give a damn about. And a great cast is wasted: Hoffman and Jackson grab the lion's share of the good lines, but there's little here for the actors to sink their teeth into, as Stone's empty performance proves. As for the much-vaunted special effects, what few exterior shots there are become lost in the dim, hazy murk of the ocean, all but losing their impact.
It's not necessarily Levinson's fault: all he had to work with was a big, evil golden ball in a plot that's been hacked about by four credited screenwriters. Come the climax, Sphere is revealed as a damp, languid, worthless rehash of Forbidden Planet, with neither Adam Greenberg's jolting cinematography nor Crichton's Tomorrow's World science lending themselves to a very intriguing, absorbing or entertaining night out.