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In the latest Crichton-based thriller, there's nothing to fear but Sphere itself

When and if we humans make first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, the experience may have this much in common with Sphere: It could be confusing and unsatisfying. But if it's anywhere near so cliched, it will be a crushing disappointment.

That Sphere is based on a Michael Crichton novel is not, in itself, significant -- a good many current films are based on Crichton's books, avowedly or not. Indeed, the film that Sphere most closely resembles thematically and visually, last summer's harsh, gory space opera Event Horizon, may well have been heavily influenced by Sphere the novel.

Nor does the film's high-budget or A-list cast necessarily confer any special importance on it. But the names associated with this project carry a prestige that's not unwarranted. There was real talent here -- Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson. Behind the camera was Barry Levinson, who, in this same hired-gun mode, directed the film adaptation of -- and improvement upon -- Crichton's Disclosure.

It was reasonable to wonder what sort of fresh insights and ideas this hip lot might bring to the overworked, fatigued sci-fi genre, and to the mustiness of Crichton's dramaturgy. And for the first half-hour or so, it feels like they may indeed be onto something. The film opens with a disconcerting sense of quiet that is unforced and unmelodramatic. And it sure does move -- Levinson whisks us through a series of quick episodes as Hoffman and other members of a scientific team are assembled on a ship in the Pacific to study a mysterious spacecraft embedded in the coral on the ocean floor, with something operational -- and maybe alive -- still aboard.

Admittedly, you can't watch the early scenes of this film as quickly as you can read the chapters in a Crichton book. Still, it's with impressive efficiency that Levinson gets the party -- Hoffman's a psychologist, Stone's a biologist, Jackson's a mathematician, Liev Schreiber's an astrophysicist, Peter Coyote and Queen Latifah are the feds -- down in Davy Jones's locker and stepping over the spaceship's threshold.

Most of what follows, however, is disjointed, thirdhand and interminable. Aboard the ship, the party encounters an enormous, glistening sphere, which, they theorize, may be a sentient being of some sort. Those whose encounters are a little too close begin to see their deepest terrors manifested -- that old sci-fi ploy that goes back at least as far as "Id -- Beast of Krell" in Forbidden Planet.

Sphere's lack of originality would be less of a problem if the film had something else going for it. But basically it's just Event Horizon with bigger stars and fewer chills. Nor is the film helped by marine-biology errors that even a layperson can spot. Stone keeps referring to the danger of "sea snakes" -- never mind that sea snakes are air-breathing, warm-water creatures, and thus would not be found thousands of feet below the surface.

There's one jolting moment involving a fangy-faced deep-sea fish, and one scary-yet-magical sequence -- Hoffman and Stone, in diving suits, are suddenly caught in a shower of eggs from a giant squid. Yet, maddeningly, we never get a good look at this behemoth!

Instead, we get Hoffman and Stone squabbling over a past love affair gone sour, while Jackson sits around impassively reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Levinson and the adapters, Stephen Hauser, Paul Attanasio and Kurt Wimmer, must have thought that the incongruity of this psychobabble would be weird and unnerving, but as terrors of the deep go, I'll put my money on a giant squid any day.

Jackson has a droll manner -- he wears saddle shoes in his opening scene -- and Stone gets to make one funny quip about the alien's verbal style. But only Hoffman really makes the most of the mess he's in. With his hilariously fast, jittery line readings, he conveys the sense of a milquetoast intellectual hustler, a man whose survival skills are all verbal. The recent Wag the Dog reminded many of us that Hoffman doesn't do all-out comedy often enough; his performance in Sphere suggests that he agrees.

Sphere.
Directed by Barry Levinson. With Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Peter Coyote and Queen Latifah.

Rated PG-13.
118 minutes.

 
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