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"Sphere" just isn't very deep.

By Stacey Richter

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  FREUD FOREVER CHANGED the way we think about ourselves by calling attention to the deep, submerged, forgotten realm of the unconscious mind...which a simple-minded writer might represent metaphorically by the deep, dark submerged floor of the ocean. There, below the bright surface (populated by civilized men in boats), lurks something weird. Could it be our deepest fears? Could it be from outer space?

Michael Crichton, upon whose book Sphere is based, is not known for being a subtle writer. Yet given this, it's actually sort of fascinating to watch how he (with help from some veteran screenwriters and director Barry Levinson) takes one of the most influential intellectual frameworks of the 20th century and turns it into a flimsy work of science fiction. The imagery is obvious, and the psychology is beyond pop, but the whole thing is so earnest and goofy that it has a kind of camp appeal.

Because there is this thing way, way down under the ocean. The Navy has determined it's a space ship and has assembled, at short notice, a group of top civilian professionals to make contact with a possibly alien entity. Why the Navy wants to work with civilians is rather sketchy--Sphere has plot holes big enough to pilot a nuclear submarine through, but I digress.

So, all these famous actors converge, and they're all playing really good-looking scientists. Sharon Stone is a marine biologist, Samuel L. Jackson is a mathematician, Liev Schrieber is an astro-physicist (sadly, not famous enough to survive), and Dustin Hoffman is Norman Goodman, the psychologist who has recommended that a psychologist be present when making the initial contact with aliens. (Samuel Jackson wonders if the first words the little green men are expected to say are "take me to your therapist.")

So down they go, way down to the bottom of the ocean, where everything is dark and unexamined. The team suits up and swims over to the space ship. (Fans of The Graduate will enjoy the chance to see Hoffman in diving gear again.) Inside the ship is a lot of funny stuff, including one particularly weird bauble: A giant, shimmery sphere. It's super shiny. The crew looks into the sphere; they see themselves. They are reflected. They fall asleep.

Then they go back to the submarine, where they must live during their investigation, and all sorts of evil creatures start to sprout all over the habitat--manifestations of the crew's individual ids that have been given permission by the superego of the sphere to come out and romp: Sea snakes, jellyfish, giant squid--a whole bouillabaisse. (Though no Freddie Kruegers, no folks in pajamas trying to find the right room for their math quiz, and oddly, given the Freudian thrust of the plot, absolutely no sex.) As you can imagine, not only does the crew have to face a bunch of slimy monsters, they have to face themselves.

But first there's this part where they still think the monster is outside of them, talking to them via the computer. This part of the movie is like Sibyl meets the HAL scenes of 2001, as Norman tries to give credence to the delicate feelings of the entity, which meanwhile is flashing messages on the screen like: I WILL KILL YOU ALL. (You can get your own computer to murmur this by visiting the official Sphere website.) Later, the psychobabble is confined to scenes between the characters, resulting in some gem-like shreds of bad dialogue, as when Norman says to his former patient and/or girlfriend, Sharon Stone, "Once, a long time ago, I treated you in a way that was very inappropriate, and I'm sorry."

Of course, once the gang cracks the mystery--that the evil is within them, and that all the bad things surrounding them are in their heads (except for a flock of bloodthirsty jellyfish, which manage to savage Queen Latifah), things settle down considerably. Rather than taking the aliens to their therapist, Norman does a little on-the-fly therapy for himself and his earthling companions, making exclamations like: "It's not real! It's all in your head!"

At last the survivors return to the surface. (I am giving the whole plot away here. This is very inappropriate, and I'm sorry.) They've arrived back in civilization, where, in a weird twist, the gang decide to end their therapeutic journey by forgetting everything that happened to them down below. "We just aren't ready," Norman intones, indicting the entire human race as well as himself. But maybe the audience isn't ready either, Norman. What about our feelings?

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