Retro Review | Sphere (1998)

Retro Review | Sphere (1998)

Sphere, a film with four great actors and an academy awarded director. So why is that the best thing about it?

On a recent visit to a charity shop, they were selling three DVDs for just £1. I was lucky enough to find several Blu-rays, but I also picked up a copy of Sphere.

I knew of Sphere, it was originally released as a novel written by Michael Crichton in 1987. Crichton would of course become most well-known for writing Jurassic Park.

Sphere was adapted into a film by Warner Brothers and released in 1998. Unfortunately, I missed the original showing. I went to the cinema regularly with a group of friends, and for this visit I think I had to work.

Afterwards, my then best friend advised me to steer clear and that I wasn’t missing anything special (wise words).

Well, 23 years later, I thought I would pick up this DVD with an equivalent value of 33.333p.

Sphere begins with Dr. Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman) waking up in a helicopter as it flies over the ocean. After talking to the pilot (played by Huey Lewis no less!) who knows nothing about the trip apart from the destination, Norman reveals he is a psychologist who specializes in dealing with the survivors of disasters.

Norman believes he is being taken to see the survivors of a plane that has crashed out in the ocean.

Once he arrives at the ship, he is surprised to also find marine biologist Dr. Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), mathematician Dr. Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson) and astrophysicist Dr. Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber).

Norman is now very confused as to why these people are here and why he isn’t being taken to see the survivors straight away, as timing is critical in his role.

The group is gathered together by Capt. Harold Barnes, and they are told that there is no plane crash. Instead, they will be the first people to investigate a crashed spacecraft that resides on the ocean floor.

“I’m Dustin Hoffman, a psychologist. What did you do before becoming a pilot?”, “Did you ever hear the song, The Power of Love?”

The ship is covered in part with coral and, due to the precise speed at which it grows, Beth calculates that the ship has been there for approximately 300 years.

The four of them are taken down to the research hub that has been built on the seafloor that is being maintained by a skeleton crew of two.

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From there, they make their way across the sea floor and into the alien spacecraft. It seems very utilitarian inside, and Harry discovers the presence of English to point out a rubbish receptacle.

Meanwhile, Beth and Norman discover the ships bridge and the remains of a human captain. The manage to access the ships log to discover that the spacecraft is American and has in fact travelled to Earth, but from a point 350 years ahead in time.

The team then discover a huge golden sphere with a flowing mercury like surface. It is clearly alien in origin, and there seems to be no way to find out what could be inside.

Now this sounds like a thrilling start to the film and in all honestly it is, but from here on in, its downhill all the way.

With such a cracking cast, you’d think the film would be fascinating to watch. Out of the main cast, only Jackson, Stone and Schreiber feel like their part of the film. Hoffman, to me anyway, feels very out of place.

He may be a fantastic actor, but in Sphere, quite frankly, he is not. There are several times when he just looks uncomfortable and reacts to situations in ways that didn’t make sense to me.

Hoffman isn’t alone in this, the others also have their moments, including Stone and Jackson.

Jackson is great at the start, but the story means he has to play the character a certain way from a set point in the film. It makes sense why Jackson’s reacting differently but at the same time, it’s also annoying to watch.

The team are ready for a deep sea dive, or are they just watching the film?

Speaking of the story, the Sphere runs for too long to play out a point that most of the audience will have figured out long before the on screen characters have.

The story also features plot holes that made no sense. If you’ve just discovered a crashed alien craft, why is it just four civilian people examining it? Why has the sub nautical base only run by two people? Why are there so many naval ships on the surface protecting the area when so little is actually being done down below?

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Another gripe has to be made at the film’s production values, mainly the visual effects. The underwater work and the limited film sets are great, but it’s unfortunately everything else.

Sphere’s main theme is about deep-rooted psychological fears and these are bought to life throughout the film, however, it’s not incredibly convincing.

I’m going to spoil several moments now, so you may want to skip ahead now, but come on, it’s over twenty years old.

The mystical alien sphere.


A crewmate gets attacked by numerous jellyfish. However, it looks like it’s just the one, while the rest are superimposed over the top. I’m not even sure how a jellyfish can get its tendrils inside your wetsuit either and sting you to death.

Beth is attacked by a giant squid, but you never see it, it’s all implied. This may have worked in theory but with director Barry Levinson, it clearly doesn’t.  I’m not sure what terror is being implied by filling the scene with hundreds of squid eggs but no actual squid.

Finally, Norman is afraid of snakes and similar creatures. Whilst outside the habitat, he is attacked by a small, vicious sea snake. However, it’s unintentionally funny watching a small luminous sea creature try to attack Norman in his deep sea gear, the snake pinging off the glass in his helmet.


This is nowhere as exciting as it looks, trust me.

Director Barry Levinson has bought us such films as Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man and Toys. Okay, that last example is a little strange, but I quite enjoyed it. I don’t know what he was doing with Sphere.

The film runs for too long, the plot itself is thin on the ground. Not only is it easy to work out, as I already mentioned, but it feels something like this has been done before and to better effect.

The thrills of the film never reach the level they’re trying to aspire for, and the whole film falls flat, even with an ending that tries to excite with the use of explosives.

Sphere may be a film of science-fiction, laced with a hint of time-travel and deep psychological fears, but it’s ultimately not very good at all.

Steer clear. Sphere isn’t worth your time.


John Abbitt

About the author | John Abbitt

@UKFilmNerd | John loves film, and he used to write for his own website, The Tydirium Hangar Bay, in the late 1990s. Whilst that website became lost in the passages of time, John's love of film did not. He's back, writing for The Unheard Nerd.