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Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension

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We should be so lucky

Sphere

(1998)
[Internet Movie Database entry for this film]

One of the more important survival mechanisms adopted by the developing human being was that of pattern recognition. This is the ability to take a minimal number of visual (or other) data points from an object and fit them to a corresponding model formed from previous encounters with similar objects, extrapolating the rest of the ‘missing’ data, without the time needed to process the entire object in detail. If Trog the hunter sees antlers, a vaguely familiar outline, and a brownish short coat on an animal, he can come to the extrapolated conclusion that it is a deer quickly enough to bash it on its head with his club, as opposed to watching an unnamed object flee into the woods as he tries to take in every single descriptive point of what could have been his next meal. Trog’s brother Urhg, lacking this facility, was last known to have mentally processed "six feet tall, brown fur, pointed snout, large claw-", before having his classification process cut rather short by what eventually turned out to be a Grizzly.

This is the way the human eye works: we don’t see all of reality, merely enough of it (usually in the form of contrasting colours or textures) to let our brain ‘fill in the gaps’ and present it to our consciousness as a complete picture. Experiments have shown that as few as a dozen or so small lights placed on a person wearing a black body suit in a darkened room are enough data points to divulge the human form.

This facility serves us still. It is that same ability to identify key data points without processing the object as a whole that allows us to catch a long fly ball hit to left field, avoid stepping out in front of an unexpected speeding car on the street, or to judge a stranger’s sexual attractiveness in under six (!) seconds (see ‘The Naked Ape’ by Desmond Morris).

And, of course, it lets us know, without having to see it, that any given movie will most likely hurt Bad when it tells us it was based on, inspired by, or ‘faithfully’ adapted from a story by : Edgar Alan Poe, Brahm Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, or (most recently) Michael Crichton.

To be fair to Crichton, I must admit I’ve not read any of his novels. Not through any conscious effort, you understand, but I just never got around to buying the latest novel that seemingly everyone else on the planet was reading at the time. I was a fanatic for early Stephen King (back when Carrie and Salem's Lot were new), and vowed never to fall into that trap again, with any author (the closest I’ve come is my near-complete collection of Shakespeare, which, given Will’s output lately, doesn’t seem likely to put me on a treadmill as had happened with King). So my criticism isn’t so much that he’s a bad author, merely that, as with the other authors mentioned above, film versions of his novels usually don’t work, and in a Big Way.

Still being fair, I concede that Crichton was the author behind Andromeda Strain, Westworld, and Coma. Then again, he was also behind Runaway, the Jurassic Park duo, Twister (for which alone we should revive the British punishment of drawing and quartering), and the subject of this review: Sphere.

I could take the easy route out here. I could tell you about the entire film by sending you an .MOV of the trailer and tack on a few lines of text to describe the last ten minutes or so. That, however, would be too much of a cop-out, and wouldn’t make for a very long review.

In all honesty, though, the trailer sums up most of the film. But, more so than that, it blatantly gives away points which weren’t supposed to be known for almost a third of the movie or more. Its one thing for a MovieGeek™ to see a single pre-production note in Variety about Winona Ryder playing the "sexy android ‘Call’ " in an upcoming ‘Alien’ sequel, and remember that factoid two years later when the film is released, ruining the surprise. Its another for Warner Brothers to put together and show in movie theaters across the country a trailer which has Dustin Hoffman showing Sharon Stone the packet of Smokehouse almonds he pulled from the desiccated hands of a supposedly alien corpse in a supposedly 300 year-old alien space craft at the bottom of the ocean while she says out loud "It's an American space craft.".

The gradual trail of realizations the film makers intended to put the audience on probably went something like this:

"Wow, its not a plane crash, it’s a space ship?"
"You mean its been down on the bottom of the ocean for three hundred years?"
"Hey, it still seems to be active, and its still totally intact!"
"Oh, man, its an American space ship!"
"Oh, man, its an American space ship that’s traveled back in time!"
"Hey, there’s a large golden sphere on board."
"Ah- Samuel Jackson just went inside the sphere!"
"The sphere is talking to the contact team via their on-board computer."
"Big squids, killer jellyfish, and sea-snakes, oh my!"

The trouble is that, thanks solely to the trailer, the actual thought process was more like:

"Seen that in the trailer."
Ibid
Ibid
Ibid
Ibid
Ibid
Ibid
Ibid
Ibid

"Wow, Dustin Hoffman sounds like he’s still doing his character from Rain Man".

Or something similar.

The last thing I’ll say before moving on to the ‘play-by-play’, as it were, is that I was in fact entertained by the first part of Sphere the first time I saw it (when it was called either The Abyss or Alien), and I was quite highly entertained by the second half the first time I saw that (when it was called Forbidden Planet and starred Walter Pigeon). I have to take it as a given that I would have enjoyed the last five minutes of Sphere along with everyone else who saw it the first time, when it was called Prince of Tides, but I missed that one.

On to the film. The opening credits, while well done and rather stylish, tip us off to something the film is going to throw at us sometime within the next 135 minutes, as black and white drawings of giant squid attacking sailing ships roll past the ‘sphere-distorted’ titles. The creepy opening music segues to the sound of a helicopter, and we fade to a Coast Guard chopper ferrying Norman Goldman (Dustin Hoffman) across the Pacific ocean. Said helicopter is flown by none other than Huey Lewis (sadly, ‘The News’ are absent), appearing in an odd little minute-and-a-half role. Huey is not the only (ex) musician in our ensemble: Queen Latifah appears as well, but we’ll get to her in due time.

Some contrived but functional expository dialog establishes that Norman is a psychologist for the FAA specializing in post traumatic stress and survivor guilt, who believes he’s being flown to the site of an airplane crash. Huey remarks that he don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no plane crash, and that the Navy has been flying out "all kinds" of people to the site lately, and no one knows why. Bum bum bummmmm.

Dustin Hoffman and Sir Not Appearing in This Film Ms. Stone, we'd like to talk to you about your role in 'Sphere' if we could?

This scene is over quickly, only giving me time for a single "If This Is It" reference at Huey’s expense (maybe I should make some ‘in’ references to Tommy, and really show my age). Next we’re on board a ship with Norman as he tries to get details on what is going on from the Navy (I think?) man ushering him to his quarters. There he runs into three old acquaintances of his : Ted Fielding (Liev Schrieber) the author of "Astrophysics You Can Use" {no, really}, Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone) a biologist and former lover of Norman’s {no, really!}, and Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson, wondering why he didn’t learn the ‘good books do not equal good movies’ lesson after Time to Kill) a mathematician.

After being kept waiting for hours, Norman is brought from his cabin to a briefing by Barnes (Peter Coyote), the ubiquitous Shady Guvmint Sp00k (who’s actually wearing shades indoors the first time we see him). When Norman asks who Barnes is, Barnes replies that the OSSA "…. doesn’t know who I am. That should reassure you." Uh huh. Where’s Mulder and Sculley, we wonders? It’s here that Barnes tells Norman that the pretext of his arrival was false, and that there is no downed air liner: it’s a NASA space craft.

Only trouble is, this was in the first few seconds of the trailer.

At the briefing Barnes tells the assembled four principals that a ship laying fiber-optic cable in the Pacific had the cable sheared cleanly in two by some object on the ocean floor 1,000 feet down. Subsequent US Naval investigation revealed an aerodynamic shape with a tail fin as long as a football field, and covered in coral. Okay, never mind that in the nice little multi-media presentation Barnes is giving we can clearly see that the supposed ‘fiber-optic cable’ which was sheared cleanly in two is actually a simple bundle of striated wire, and as been cut about as cleanly as Don Johnson’s beard in the early 80’s. And never mind that Barnes says Naval Side Looking Sonar allowed them to calculate that the ship was covered in an 8 yard thick growth of coral, when SLS (or Side Scanning Sonar, depending on which textbook you’re reading) is for hi-res imaging of ocean floor features, and can’t really ‘see’ beneath surfaces (that is what Ultra Sound is used for). Let’s not get hung up so soon. Given the growth rate of coral, its deduced that the supposed NASA space craft has been on the bottom of the Pacific since the year 1709. Meaning its an alien space craft. <gasp>

Only trouble is, this was in the first few seconds of the trailer as well.

Now, let’s just focus for a moment on Beth’s objection that since Pacific coral grows at about an inch a year (she even makes the statement that you can "set your watch by it"), that makes the crashed object almost 300 years old, which she says is ridiculous. Oh, so an alien space ship crashing is cool with her, just not one crashing so long ago, right? And while we’re at it, I’d like to remind our lady biologist that the Pacific coral she seems to know so much about, like all coral, needs sunlight to exist, and thus could not be found below a few hundred feet, much less at over a thousand. Thank you, Mr. Crichton (and/or screenwriter Stephen Hauser), for not letting those nasty things called ‘facts’ get in your way.

It's in this meeting that we learn that the reason why this particular team has been selected.  It seems that Norman wrote a report on how to select a contact team in the event of meeting up with aliens, way back during the Bush years. A few subsequent little asides between Norman and the rest of the cast establishes that Norman wrote the report as kind of a joke: the Guvmint offered him $35k to do it (it's never established why he was chosen), and he decided to write a knock-off report, picking names of the first people that came to mind, and then used the proceeds for a down payment on a new house. While an interesting angle for the character, Norman’s repeated and kinda-Rain Man style speech patterns as he relates this story to the other characters are so annoying that the novelty of the background quickly wears off, and we’re looking for the nearest bathtub full of hot water to give Ra-, er, Norman a good ole ‘burned baby’ treatment to make him either speak up or shut up.

Rewinding back to the meeting, repeated expository dialog establishes for even those suffering from having had a Civil War-era musket ball fired into their frontal lobes (or simply reminding anyone who has seen the trailer) that there is an alien space craft on the ocean floor, that it crashed there 300 years ago, that its humming with some apparent machinery noise, and that the Guvmint thinks that there’s alien life still aboard (though they don’t explain why they believe in living alien life as opposed to  just the possibility of still-living alien life after 300 years). Harry identifies the individual logic behind the selections of himself, Norman, Beth, and Ted for the team, and asks what Barnes is doing there. To show how cool he is, Barnes waits a beat or two, then ignores the question and continues on. Silly boy, he’s the Shady Guvmint Sp00k, there to withhold information, and to be the true source of antagonism for the film, as aliens are almost always shown in a neutral or positive light these days.

The next sequence quite literally had me laughing out loud. It’s a series of close-ups of each of the contact team members being asked a battery of physical and psychological questions by off-screen voices, presumably in preparation for their descent to 1,000 feet and possible contact with alien life. The way it comes off, however, is a hilarious mixture of what might be the actors' actual screen tests for their parts, and those short-lived Calvin Klein commercials featuring Dennis-Franzian off-screen voices asking the wiry young pretty boy on screen if he’d like to take his shirt off for the camera.

Beth’s ‘interview’ is the funniest of the lot, as she gives the distinct impression in a most unsubtle manner that she is addicted to pain killers, and might have attempted suicide in the past. If she were a witness in a trial, you’d wouldn’t need Matlock to make her break down and ‘fess up that it was she who put the poison in old lady Primbottom’s Ensure, not Mr. Witherspoon; Jim Varney could accomplish that just fine. The only ‘interview’ that doesn’t cause laughter is Harry’s. It’s a true credit to Jackson’s capabilities as an actor that he alone is able to make the audience believe he really is a mathematician describing some knee injuries to the off-screen Guvmint Men, and not just the token black in a semi-pornographic jeans ad.

"Fine, don't ask ME to take MY shirt off, see if I care. Jerks" Your Friendly Neighborhood Shady Guvmint Sp00k

This mess is followed up by the first of Norman’s "I’m sorry, it was a bogus report" scenes, and it's with Harry. All I’ll say about this is that I seriously had to crank the volume on my system to hear what the hell it was Hoffman was muttering. This of course resulted in a great road test for my subwoofer, courtesy of Jackson’s articulate, nigh-baritone voice. Its bad enough that Hoffman looked like he was reading his lines right from cue cards taped to the floor or wall as he spoke, but his muffled delivery was so bad that I kept waiting for him to don an orange parka and hood and start muttering obscenities, a-la South Park's Kenny. Well, that’s not exactly an accurate comparison: most people can actually make out at least some of what Kenny says.

Hoffman obviously had some clear vision of the character of Norman in mind. The trouble is that that vision was of an odd cross between Rain Man and Woody Allen on Ritalin. Its also clear during the rest of the movie that Hoffman’s vision of how psychologists behave has been formed more by popular cultural conceptions than by actual contact and interaction with real life psychologists (having put a few shrink’s kids through college, and being married to one myself, I think I’m qualified to judge here). I’ll get more into this as things unfold.

Now its time to brief the civilians on their diving gear and equipment (if you’ve seen ‘Escape From New York’, this scene is sort of reminiscent of Snake’s briefing and outfitting just prior to taking off on his mission). A US Navy Dive Master tells the four PhDs all about pressurization, hypothermia, and the need to decompress after the dive. The main bone I wish to pick with this is where the Navy man, warning them of the need to decompress, says that if they should return to the surface without the necessary several-day decompression period, their "body would literally burst". Ah, no, sorry, but it won’t. Without going into nauseating detail, the effect is called aeroembolism (or "the bends"), and it involves molecules of nitrogen which were previously forced into liquid solution in the body by the pressure from outside suddenly depressurizing into gas bubbles within the tissues. Its supposed to be hideously painful, and can be fatal, but you do not in any way ‘burst’.

This is the same misconception most outer space films fuel, showing hapless characters who’ve been tossed out of airlocks popping like a cherry tomato hooked up to an air compressor. As an aside, kudos go to the film ‘Event Horizon’ for relating a more realistic account of what the total decompression process would probably be like. Now, when total decompression is not used as a necessary plot device or made too important an event I have no serious problem with this misconception; case in point, the film ‘Outland’.

But when a supposed authority figure like the Naval dive officer in ‘Sphere’ relates wildly inaccurate facts about their field that even laypersons know to be false, my hand reaches for the Penalty Flag (a small black towel recently replaced with a new model, owing to my cat’s playful destruction of the original, which I hurl at the screen in response to egregiously bogus moments like the above). It would be like watching ‘Platoon’, and hearing Tom Berringer’s character wax poetic about how more American soldiers were killed in Viet Nam than any other war previous. Or watching ‘Awakenings’, and hearing Robin Willams’ character talk about how autism affects more people world wide than heart disease.

Or watching ‘Independence Day’, without having my head so far up my butt that I’m totally unaware of elementary laws of physics, internal plot continuity, and common sense. Your reality sensors just won’t buy it.

To balance this out, the dive officer tells the civilian contact team that they will be trained in the use of complicated gear at very dangerous depths for eight whole hours (as opposed to the months one would normally have to spend to even have a hope of surviving the event).

Our contact team is taken down via mini-sub to the habitat station constructed on the ocean floor near the space ship. The dive serves mainly to set up certain character elements. Why is the mini-sub’s initial release from the umbilical connection with its tender such a jolt when its already under water? Oh, so Norman can make fretful comments asking Barnes to warn them next time, thus establishing him as a nervous nelly type. As the sub descends, classical music is being played inside. Why would a military mini-sub have the radio turned on during a hazardous descent (or even have a music radio in the first place)? Oh, so Harry can identify the piece as a specific Mozart concerto (complete with its Köchel listing), thus showing him to be a genius. Why would Ted become so annoyed with Harry humming along with the music? Oh, so we can set up their who’s-the-bigger-genius competitiveness early on.

And (my personal favourite), why would Barnes, in explaining the hull popping noises the team ask about, use the odd and slightly incorrect phraseology "Those noises are the pressure of the water attacking the integrity of the sub"? Oh, so Beth can fire off her little dig "You know a little something about that, don’t you Norman? About how the pressure can attack your integrity?", and clue us in that those two have had a tempestuous past. There are a few throw-away lines as well as some useless (and humourless) quips tossed about, so all in all this scene would have gone down easier had it consisted of white letters on a black background spelling out "time passes …" like in old Infocom text adventure games where the computer would remind you if you’ve failed to do anything meaningful for a while.

 

"No, its true - you really would burst. I saw it in a movie once, so there!" "And out your left window you can see the back side of water. Ha, I kid!"

The capper to the descent sequence takes place inside the airlock within the habitat. Here is where the contact team gets pressurized to work at 1,000 feet down, and becomes acclimated to breathing a mixture of helium and other gasses to equalize the pressure. I seriously doubt if anyone over fourteen would be entertained by this sequence, as it features Ted (the ‘nerdy’ scientist) relating the physics behind the need to use helium rather than oxygen at high pressures as coldly and logically as a Vulcan, whilst the other team members (all adults, and PhD holders, mind you) giggle and make funny faces at their silly high-pitched voices.

Not content to simply pull this old gag on us once, the filmmakers have Ted pick up on their mirth, and go on to explain just as rationally as before why it is that helium causes your voice to go up in pitch. What’s the team's response? Norman smirks and says "Ah, could you could you run that by me again, I don’t speak balloon" (in one of his most articulate deliveries of the movie, by the way), Beth giggles like a school girl getting goosed by a football player who just had his hands in the team ice chest looking for a Gatorade, and Harry trippingly sings "Follow the Yellow Brick Road". The only way this infantile scene could have been made more childish would have been to have Harry do arm-farts while Ted and Norman played a few rounds of rock-paper-scissors to determine who got to snap Beth’s bra.

This scene is so annoyingly sophomoric, in fact, that we almost forget to ask why Barnes is not in the chamber with them, but is instead standing outside speaking to them via intercom. Almost.

The habitat is already staffed by two Navy women: Fletcher (Queen Latifah) and Edmonds (uh ... some other fine actress, I'm sure). I’d tell you what their jobs onboard the habitat are, or go into what it is they do when on screen, but we really don’t see very much of them, so it's hard to tell. Fletcher seems to work the communications gear, as one of her few scenes of length has her at a bank of monitors surrounded by buttons and switches. And Edmonds …. well, all I can tell about Edmonds (and I am being serious here), is that she has a serious gap between her two front teeth. No, this doesn’t make her a bad person, but it also doesn’t make her a fleshed out character, either. Since we neither know nor learn anything of substance about either of these two, it makes their upcoming deaths rather less dramatic than perhaps intended. (oops! Guess I wrecked the surprise for ya <snort>).

To make things worse, in the opening credits Queen Latifah is billed before Liev Schrieber. Okay, so maybe Phantoms was a painful film, but does that mean Schrieber should get listed after an ‘actor’ who’s major claim to fame is a brainless sitcom on Fox, especially when the character of Ted has roughly 20 times as much screen time? Thankfully this was sorted out in the closing credits.

Now that the principals are in the habitat itself, Barnes starts to fill them in on some more technical detail regarding the craft they’re investigating (after pressurizing in his own private chamber, where no one made squeaky voiced jokes, we assume). When he points out the picture of an air lock mated to an outside door on the craft, showing on the multi-screen presentation running behind him, Ted remarks that the door is about the size of an airplane door. This prompts Barnes to interrupt Ted’s musings and overtly try to move attention away from that fact. Why? Don’t bother asking: this is simply a red herring to plant suspicions as to how much it is Shady Guvmint Sp00k Barnes really knows, what he’s covering up, and why. Nothing, not one single thing comes of this deliberate misdirection, nor is it touched upon again.

There is some discussion amongst the team about the wisdom of going inside the ship. Some of the potential dangers posited range from the plausible notion that the aliens might breath in one gas, but exhale something toxic to humans (such as cyanide) as part of their respiration, all the way up to the absurd idea that they might be immortal life forms and would therefore kill the team upon contact as the aliens, being immortal, would have no concept of mortality. No, not ‘morality’, the word is ‘morTality’. Its theorized that, lacking a knowledge or concept of death, the aliens would whack the humans, just ‘cause the aliens didn’t know better. This is treated as if its an ‘obvious’ conclusion to their premise (this is a reoccurring theme, by the way).

The idea is further idiotized (no, its not a word, don’t bother looking it up) by Harry who says (and I do quote, oh my Brothers) : "…wouldn’t think killing was right or wrong, it simply would have no concept of it. Instant eradication. It's what all the serious scientific stuff talks about." (emph mine). Okay, when you’ve made sense of either that idea or that sentence, get back to me. I’ll be in the kitchen whipping up some Nachos Magnificos and strawberry Margaritas (BTW, Cuervo Gold is the bestest tequila in the whole wide world for straw-margs. Presidente is great where you’re not mixing it, but there’s something about Cuervo that goes great with triple sec and strawberries).

A very short scene of the team suiting up (which they take care of themselves, though even shallow divers use the buddy system to prevent accidents) and they’re off to the ship. Interestingly enough, as they make the trek across the ocean floor (which is more than a little reminiscent of ‘Alien’ where Dallas, Kane, and Lambert walk to the source of the alien distress signal) air bubbles are expelled from everyone’s tanks. I say interesting, as both Barnes and Mr. "your body would literally burst" Dive Officer stated that the team would use re-breathers, which are self contained systems and expel no gasses (as the name implies).

Also, the team (especially Beth) seems to be afflicted with rapture-of-the-deep (‘nitrogen narcosis’ for you technical people) and rapture-of-the-space-craft to where dialogue along the lines of "Wow, this is great guys" and "Hey look at that" are about as plentiful throughout the film as inbred missing-chromosome sloped headed white trash hicks at a WWF Slam-a-Thon. Beth also makes the statement that the most venomous animals live at these depths. While I’ll take her at her word (for now) that the venom of any land animal (which would include the black mamba snake, we presume) is "nothing" compared to the denizens of the deep, I must wonder aloud at her statement that the bite of "even the weakest sea snake is invariably lethal".

Lethal to what? Bee stings and ant bites are usually lethal to other insects, but they’re little more than an annoyance to most humans (and a serious gross-out to Yours Truly). Rattle snake bites that would drop a man would scarce be noticed by a bull elephant or water buffalo. Kind of fast-and-loose terminology from a biologist, wouldn’t you say? Hey, we don’t see a pattern of supposed ‘experts’ talking like a hack writer who’s done a little (but not near enough) research on a topic developing here, do we?

Once the team makes it into the airlock that’s been placed outside the door (which is shaped like the door on an airplane even though the Shady Guvmint Sp00k Barnes don’t want you to know that) the sound track does a dramatic crescendo …. as the water drains from the lock. Not as the craft is first revealed, not as its door swings open or as the team steps inside, but as water drains out of a round Plexiglas room. Actually I’m glad they put that cue there to let me know it was a dramatic moment, as I never would have picked up on that fact otherwise. Ahem.

Now begins the first in an irritatingly long series of statements of obvious fact and ‘anyone else notice’ rhetorical questions. Examples : "Wow, this is big.", "Is there heat coming off of this thing, or is it just happy to see me?" (NB: this is only in the trailer. In the actual film they cut the ‘or is it …’ part), "Anyone else wonder who in the hell opened that door?", "Am I the only one who notices that we’re not reflected …." Etc. etc. Of course, left on the cutting room floor was the quick bit wherein the entire team wondered aloud in unison "Is this pretentious piece of derivative crap gonna tank at the box office, or is it just me?".

Ted steps up to the outer door, drawing a hammer and chisel (?) from some pocket in his suit (??), and utters the line "Time for a demonstration in elementary physics". He then proceeds to whack the outer door a good solid one. Just what ‘elementary physics’ was this demonstrating? That you can whack things really hard in an air lock 1,000 below the sea? It gets better when Harry turns on SGS (getting tired of typing out ‘Shady Guvmint Sp00k’ all the time) Barnes and asks about Barnes’ earlier statements as to the craft’s strength and composition. Barnes says that yes, it is made of some super-strong titanium alloy (how’d they know? No one’s been inside or done tests? Oh, I forgot : ‘sonar’) and that it survived the crash unharmed. Harry asks then why’d it dent when "some scientist bangs on it with a hammer". I’d have loved Barnes to reply "because of elementary physics", but he stays eerily (well, not really eerily) silent, giving us yet another meaningless red herring.

There would be nothing at all unusual about small marks appearing on the side of a ship or plane when whacked on with a hammer and chisel, even if the craft was super-futuristic. In fact, more advanced metals are often slightly pliable and will give a bit, rather than having the rigid inflexibility that was the doom of the Titanic. The body of the SR-71 spy plane, for example, expands so much from friction during flight that, when on the ground, it's panels fit loose enough to leak large quantities of fuel . So this little test does not necessarily indicate anything sp00ky. Yet the filmmakers wanted to make something out of this point, and present it as some possibly important issue to be revealed later, but then, just like the reasons behind Barnes’ attempt to silence Ted’s airplane door remark, they never touch on it again.

Of course, being a futuristic space craft buried under 300 years worth of coral growth on the ocean floor at a depth at which coral can not grow, it begins to give off heat (prompting from Beth one of the statements I mention above). Almost immediately the door slowly slides open (prompting another one of those statements from Harry), and the team tentatively steps inside.

Showing the advanced reasoning and professional Sp00k skills that are the reason why he is on the team, Barnes suggests offhandedly that the team keep their helmets on, as he’s not sure what the atmosphere is like (why didn’t he just whip out his Tri-Corder, we wonders?). They’re inside for about fifteen seconds when Barnes remarks to Fletcher back in the habitat that there’s "a hell of a lot of radiation shielding here". Just how he was able to deduce this from an utterly unfamiliar setting with which he has no prior reference points is one of the true mysteries of the film. Oh, that, and the reason why the team doesn’t ‘literally burst’ when they walk into the inside of the craft, as I’m damn well certain that the interior wasn’t conveniently pressurized to the level of 1,000 feet of water and 17 PSI of atmosphere beforehand, as was the contact team.

At this point, seeing how utterly huge the ship is, and after Beth points out some distinctly bipedal (and work boot-clad) footprints, Barnes suggests that they split up to cover more ground. On a 300 year-old alien space craft. That appears to still function. With footprints in the ‘dust’. In the dark. And we split up.

<sigh>

I’m sure in the director’s cut of the movie Norman goes off to get a beer by himself, Ted follows after when he hears an odd noise from Norman’s direction, Harry casually plays with a toy that’s supposed to open the Gates of Hell, SGS Barnes reads aloud from an ancient book of black magic, and Beth strips down to go skinny dipping in a lake inside the ship’s arboretum.

As the teams split up Harry sensibly remarks that whoever built the ship might call what they’re doing ‘divide and conquer’, to which Norman replies "If whoever built this thing wanted us dead, we’d be dead already." Ah, Mr. PhD, upon what basis are you making that statement? What inductive and deductive faculties did you use to come to that conclusion? Oh, I forgot : ‘sonar’. As Norman and Beth head off, Norman gives his second "it was a bogus report" apology speech, this time to her. As with his statements to Harry, Norman mutters most of his dialogue, but we are able to hear the part where he mentions that he ‘borrowed’ much of the material in his report. When Beth asks where he borrowed it from, he cites various sources, such as Isaac Asimov, and Rod Serling. (Twilight Zone. Humour. GET IT?)

As Norman trails on (and on and on), another thing we hear him remark on is how he never expected things to go this far, or that it would ever really happen, or that he’d be flown out to the middle of the ocean with "half the Pacific Fleet". Excuse me for butting in again, movie, but two (possibly three) warships and a half dozen civilian vessels ranging in size from 40 foot fishing boats to 120 foot commercial ships does not in even a liberal sense equate to anywhere near "half the Pacific Fleet". As I was spitting venom (not as deadly as a sea snake’s, of course) at the screen for that bit of hyperbole, I almost missed Beth’s verbal sting of "Is this anything like ‘Gee, Beth, I thought you knew I was married’?", our second tip that Norman and Beth have a past, and our first one that they’ve made the Beast With Two Backs together at some point. Just picturing Beth’s lithe form coupling with Norman’s loose-skinned liver spotted little twizzle of a trunk, and those Nachos aren’t looking too good after all. But boy that pitcher of straw-margs sure is calling me right about now.

To make things more interesting during this exchange, the viewer should remember that everyone on the contact team has a full duplex radio built into their suit. SGS Barnes was even communicating with Fletcher back in the habitat, so every little muttered comment or sharp reproach should have been heard clearly by everyone on the team, but things are filmed in such a way as to make this seem a ‘private’ exchange between Norman and Beth. Well, as I’m fond of saying, if this is the part you have trouble with ….

During the ensuing recon, Norman and Beth come across what is clearly the control room of the craft. Its clearly the control room, as it has more bluish lighting, blinky buttony things, and a few chairs. There’s a quick cutaway to the Ted/Harry/Barnes team, who come across what is clearly a trash receptacle. It is clearly a trash receptacle, as its labeled "TRASH" in plain English. Quick cutaway to Norman/Beth again, who find a humanoid form in one of the chairs, with his head caved in and a packet of Smokehouse Almonds in his hand. Beth concludes that "Its an American space craft". Dum dum dummmm.

Only trouble is, this was in the trailer.

Norman and Beth look around the control room for some type of flight recorder or log. Beth finds a handy wall display, labeled in plain English, that turns out to be a little of both. As she scrolls down the list of entries, she reads dates like "06/21/43 – Unknown Entry Event", and remarks that she doesn’t know if it means 2043 or 1643. Two things spring to mind at this. One: a resounding ‘well, DUH!’ to Beth for not knowing if this super huge AMERICAN space craft came from the future or has been sitting on the ocean floor since one hundred years before the Montgolfier brothers became the first men to master the high-tech fight machine known as the hot air balloon. Second : I guess the whole Year2000 problem is all hot air, as space ships of the future still use a 2 digit year field.

When Beth touches the date marked "Unknown Entry Event", the control room is instantly filled with one of those ultra-hi-res 3d holographic virtual reality syntho-matic videos that every ship in the future will use instead of good old (functional, practical) text or voice recordings to document log entries. This entry is of a breathtaking panoramic view of deep space, with a multi-coulored black hole dominating the view. Colours swirl, gasses are expelled in a ‘string’ from the center of the black hole, and the POV of the log is slowly ‘sucked’ into it. Only problem is, of course, that the only time space looks that vivid, and the only time black holes are visible at all (much less so resplendently bedecked in all the colours of the rainbow) is either in sci-fi films that are too stupid to know better, or in sci-fi films where they hope the audiences are too stupid to know better.

Oh yeah, that, and the fact that the log didn’t really seem to contain any actual information (ya know, the stuff logs are for?), just lots of pretty pictures. Since we’ve made the move in our time from "walk/don’t walk" signs to the dumbed-down "white foot/red hand" symbols, I suppose this is only a natural progression.

The best thing to do at this point is of course to split up. Yeah, this is MUCH better than a note saying "Day 17: Hit a black hole'

Norman and Beth call to the other team and say that they have reason to believe they’re on an American space ship, to which SGS Barnes replies "It gets better". Cut to a scene of the team standing in what I guess is the cargo hold (though it's obscenely huge, as anyone who knows anything about space usage on an airplane, ship, or submarine will tell you), staring in wonder at the large, golden (titular) sphere occupying most of the space therein.

Ted wagers that if they measured it with laser micrometers that they’d find it was a perfect sphere to within 1/1,000th of an inch. Minor point: why would a scientist speak in US Standard measurement, and not Metric? Major point: Ted says this, even though the entire surface of this ‘perfect’ sphere is roiling and undulating, with valleys forming that look deep enough to hold a cantaloupe. Beth’s contribution to the solemnity of the moment is the line "I know what the Zen masters would say : this ball wants to be caught." Quite surprisingly, not one of the rest of the team yells "Shut the hell up" at her, or makes a move to cut her air hose, a-la ‘Sea Hunt’.

The explanation behind this comment from Ted is that, at the time the scene was shot, the actual look for the sphere had yet to be decided. As in all blue-screen scenes, the actors were acting opposite nothing (like Jackson acting opposite Hoffman <ZING!> -sorry), but usually they are given some brief as to what they would be seeing it if were there, and how to react to it. In this case, all they knew was "Its big and round. Go with it, baby." Early concepts for the Sphere were of a large, totally smooth silver ball (which would have worked with Ted’s statement ), but this was dropped for fear of being suggestive of a round version of ‘2001’s Monolith, or other such icon. Personally, I think director Barry Levinson was worried about reminding the audience of the flying balls from the Phantasm series, which would cause them to realise what a better film Phantasm III – Lord of the Dead was than what Sphere has been so far (note: this is not intended to be complimentary to Phantasm III, either).

Barnes makes a comment about putting a video camera on the sphere to watch it, and says how it could even be a Trojan Horse-type trap, which the team naturally calls paranoid. Let’s be fair, here. They’ve encountered no life, and one of the crew was either the victim of foul play, or accidentally stove in the back of his own head in a feat of physical ineptitude that would put the combined antics of Inspector Closeau and Rowin Atkinson to shame. Barnes’ statement is perfectly reasonable, especially given that he only says it’s a possibility, and never once delivers the standard SGS rap about needing to blow it up for national security. So why’d the team react to him so negatively? Oh, yeah : ‘sonar’. (?)

The scene ends with Barnes making the utterly unfounded intuitive leap that someone or something (bum bum bummm) quite obviously created the sphere to be picked up and studied, which is quite obviously the mission of the ship they’re inside. Okay, I know I brought up the bit about extrapolating data points at the beginning of this review, but this is just a little absurd. How’d he know the sphere wasn’t ‘obviously’ a new über-weapon, and the space craft the delivery vehicle on its way to finally put Newfoundland (in 2043, the United States’ mortal enemy) out for good with it, when some doofus Red-Shirt spilled chocolate Yoo-hoo on the controls, causing the USS Ray "Jay" Johnson (‘obviously’ the name of the craft) to take a header into an ‘obviously’ pan-chromatic black hole and catapult back in time a-la three out of every four Star Trek episodes ever made? Would I be running the bit too much if I said ‘sonar’ here?

If so, please substitute the line "Also, this was in the trailer", as the preceding sequence with the sphere was in the trailer.

Fade to later that day, or early the next morning at breakfast inside the habitat. The team is having chow and discussing things, but sadly, an alien life form does not poke its way through Norman’s (or anyone else’s) sternum. Given all they’ve seen, some members of the team are exhibiting a Dana Sculley-esque refusal to believe what is incontrovertibly before them. In trying to convince them, Ted tells the group that what Norman saw on the log "sounds exactly like a black hole : a tear in the fabric of space and time".

Well, that’s true … in a wrong sort of sense, I guess. Worse is when Harry cuts off Ted’s explanation of a black hole, saying that everyone knows what one is, only to have Norman without a hint of irony or ‘gee-am-I-a-dumbass-for-a-PhD-or-what’ sheepishness ask what a black hole is. Harry gives the standard sci-fi (and slightly incorrect) explanation of a collapsed star that sucks everything in the universe into it, including, theoretically, time. Ted fires back that its "rudimentary astrophysics" that a black hole would suck time into it.

Now, I’m no astrophysicist, but I’d have to guess that rudimentary aspects of astrophysics would be more like the laws of Thermodynamics, or matter=energy, or "green light=go, red light=stop, yellow light=go very very fast", and not the theoretical behaviour of non-corporeal substances when exposed to proposed principals of the cosmos operating under a not agreed-upon cosmology which still lacks a unified field theory. But maybe its just me.

A cut-away to the control center of the habitat has SGS Barnes receiving a message from the OSSA that there is a large Plot Convenience (er, ‘storm’) on the way, and that the team is being pulled out. Hey, I thought, based on the way Barnes invoked their name, that the OSSA was some Sooper Sekrit Guvmint Agency? Why’d they be sending weather reports? Or are they just an arm of the Weather Channel? If so, why’d Barnes brag to Norman early on that even they don’t know who he (Barnes) is? Hell, I’m sure the Weather Channel doesn’t know who I am, either. Do I get my black suit and Neronizer now?

If you’ve never seen a movie before in your life, you might be thinking "Damn, now they’re not going to get to see what that sphere is!". Needless to say, just as a female who’s never been seen in Star Trek before falling in love with Captain Kirk has her Fate inescapably before her, so our contact team can not escape what’s about to happen to them, no matter how hard their agents try to get them off the picture.

That night, as Norman and Harry prep for beddy-bye, Harry puts forth his theory that the sphere is alive, based on the fact that it reflected the cargo hold, but not the contact team’s images. He also cheerily adds in from his Hotel Tokyo style coffin/honeycomb of a bunk that they’re all going to die down there. Understandably a bit taken aback by this, Norman (ever the good shrink) asks Harry what he means. Harry states that Ted was right : the ship went back to 1709 from the future of 2043 via a time-warp. Naturally the team will tell the world all about it, that time travel works, that it happened in such and such a year to this or that American space ship, and all the rest.

Except, he continues, for the fact that the log listed the black hole as an ‘unknown event’, which means it didn’t know what a black hole was, which means that no one on the contact team ever told anyone about it, which means no one ever made it back alive. As usual, Jackson’s excellent acting and unsettling, matter-of-fact delivery of Harry’s train of thought are quite chilling and effective in this scene, except that since science has known about black holes for years now, the ship should not have called one an ‘unknown event’, even if the contact team never went down there in the first place.

And the fact that this scene was in the trailer (the in-theater trailer, not the shorter TV spots).

The tempo of the film changes abruptly with the next scene. Loud alarms sound and the camera’s POV bobbingly follows Norman as he dashes around the habitat’s corridors trying to see what’s going on. In the control room, Barnes tells Norman that Harry has left the habitat, presumably heading for the ship. Norman mentions that Harry said he wanted to go in the sphere, and Barnes proceeds to berate Norman both for not telling him this fact, and for not knowing where Ted and Beth are at the moment.

So Barnes is cheesed off that Norman didn’t relate what he felt were important observations to him, the head of the mission, and that Norman, an underling, doesn’t know where the rest of Barnes’ team is in the middle of the night during an unexpected alarm. Can you say pot.kettle.black? As events unfold we see Harry standing in front of the sphere. As the video in the habitat goes down briefly, a reflection of Harry slowly appears in the sphere’s surface, and Harry smiles. When the video returns, Harry is nowhere to be seen. Barnes blames this on Norman as well.

In the space of about 45 on-screen seconds, Norman has suited up, crossed the ocean floor, and made his way to the cargo hold containing the sphere. Given the other action seen in the cut-aways, even if time was compressed with editing, Norman has gotten to the sphere in an impossibly short time. The video in the habitat goes down again, and Norman sees his reflection in the sphere. Back in the habitat, exterior shots of things being unhooked and some expository dialogue from Barnes establish that the pick-up sub aborted the mission, and that the umbilical feed to the surface (heretofore totally unseen and not mentioned) has been detached due to the storm.

This prompts Ripley and Hicks to start barricading the complex, so they will be able to hold off the aliens until the rescue ship arrives…. oh, wait, wrong film. The crew of the rig cut the feed lines to the surface ship while the SEALs plan to retrieve one of the nuclear warheads from the sub in case they run into another one of the NTEs …. ah, no, that’s another wrong film. Man, this is confusing!

What really happens is that skinny little dwarfish Norman somehow manages to get the now re-appeared but unconscious Harry back to the habitat, and the team prepares for the long wait for pickup.

The shots of Harry and Norman’s reflection showing up in the surface of the sphere where they were previously the only things not reflected would have engendered a combination of surprise and dread in the viewer, had they not (you guessed it) been shown in the trailer.

The next scene has Victim #1, ah, I mean Fletcher (remember her?), putting some items in an OSSA lunch box and preparing to ‘go out to the sub’. SGS Barnes explains to the questioning Ted that the mini-sub not only serves as an emergency escape vehicle, but also has video and audio tape logs of everything that transpires in the habitat. If the sub is not ‘reset’ every 12 hours, it automatically surfaces and sends out a beacon, and will therefore contain fairly up-to-date records of what happened to the crew if they’re killed. The brilliant astrophysicist who made the intuitive leap of black hole=time travel quite fails to ask:

    1. Why is something designed to be used as an emergency escape vehicle kept docked a good ways away from the structure it was designed to let users escape from?
    2. Given the trek needed to ‘reset’ it, why set the interval to a paltry 12 hours?
    3. Since Harry is seemingly unconscious for reasons unknown, wouldn’t this constitute just the sort of emergency which would warrant them climbing into the sub and surfacing? Sure there’s a storm and all, but still?

Alas, the answers to all three are quite simply that the plot needed things to be this way. After all, if they could just leave now, there wouldn’t be much more film, would there?

And, of course, it would be that much harder to set up the film’s first fatality. As Fletcher makes her way across the ocean floor to the sub, she exhibits the contact team’s child like wonderment at her surroundings. Trouble is, she’s been down there some time, and the newness should have worn off. I’m sure the environs at that depth would be breathtaking (provided of course that, as in this film, the annoying fact that there would be no light at that depth with which to see can be set aside), but after a while I think I would stop feeling the need to voice my awe at it all, especially if my vocabulary was as tragically limited as Fletcher’s.

Here’s a fun game - take a number of 3x5 cards, and write out about two or three copies each of the following phrases :

"Wow"
"Its so beautiful"
"This is tranquil"
"Man, this is really beautiful"
"Wow, there’s a lot of jellyfish down here"
"Hey, they’re starting to get all over me"
"I can’t get them off of me"
"Ow, they’re stinging me"
"Ow"

Then mix them all up, and read them in any order. That will pretty much be the sum total of Fletcher’s entire dialogue in the film. Two darkly humorous observations : while Fletcher is being attacked by killer jellyfish, Barnes barks annoyed orders into the com set like "Fletcher, get back here", while randomly inserted shots show Norman looking with what can only be described as detached contempt at the wall-mounted speaker as he hears the reverberating sounds of Fletcher’s agonizing death. Imagine the expression of Kevin Costner on the set of Waterworld having just taken a Judy Garland dose of pain killers listening to the higher ups explain why they want to cut his ‘show my butt’ scene, and you kind of get the idea here.

People being killed in horrible ways is an annoyance .... ...but squeeky voices are funny!

Thinking back on it, perhaps this is just because Norman, like the audience, never really saw much of Fletcher, and barely even remembered who she was. You know, a "What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba" kind of thing?

After Fletcher’s death, Ted wanders into Harry’s quarters, and is surprised to find him up and showering, singing refrains from "Bali High". This is one of the creepiest parts of the movie : the team is trapped 1,000 feet underwater until a Pacific storm passes and allows their pick-up, the only attractive female left alive (Beth) is ever so unstable, and the weak white boy astrophysicist has just walked in on a naked black man singing show tunes in the shower. Time to turn all the lights up here. <shudder>.

Next follows the film’s absolute best exchange of dialogue. SGS Barnes is questioning Norman on the nature of Norman’s past relationship with Beth. All of the following is delivered totally straight, with no traces of comic relief :

Barnes : "Well, don’t take it personally, but I’m assuming she wasn’t a romantic interest."
Norman : "I’m sorry, don’t take what personally?"
Barnes : "Well … , she’s a tall, vibrant, young woman."
Norman : "Okay, what’s your point?"
Barnes <smiling> : "So you knew her as a patient."

Wow! Talk about a <ZING!> situation! I tell ya, I was on my feet cheering on Barnes at that point, just like the female side kick from ‘Officer and a Gentleman’ crying "Way to go, Norma! Way to go!" at the end (Is it wrong to invoke a Richard Gere film so closely on the heels of a ‘Hamlet’ reference, by the way?).

What really makes it a satisfying <ZING> is that Norman’s only answer is to say that he’s not at liberty to discuss confidential matters like his patients. No attempt to recover any lost face or call Barnes on the insult to Norman’s masculinity, just a mealy mouthed little quip about client confidentiality.

Of course things go downhill from there, and Barnes reads aloud from Beth’s ‘profile’, her psychological history, and even Norman’s case notes from when she was his patient. Barnes rips Norman a new one for including such a dangerously unstable person in the contact team, thus endangering all their lives. Hey, Barnes, Mr. Head Of The Operation Man, did it ever occur to you to check on the personnel suggested in a five year (or more) old report done by a civilian before setting out on a highly dangerous mission, or did you think these character flaws would just surface during their intensive third-of-a-day training period?

For that matter, since you have the materials labeling Beth as a psycho in your hands now, and there’s been no contact with the surface since arriving down here yourselves, you must have had that information in hand before even setting foot on the sub! Ever think of possibly reading them, especially those sheets marked with tabs labeled "Beth’s Electro-Shock therapy sessions, part twelve" or "more notes on Beth’s bi-polar wackiness and how it caused her to attempt suicide once"?

Also aggravating here is Norman’s pop-psychology answer to Beth’s suicide attempt. Norman claims it was nothing, merely a ‘passive attempt’ as (he reasons) "people who really want to kill themselves go out and get a gun and shoot themselves. They don’t call up their boyfriends and say they just took twenty Nembutal". This is pure B.S., and any therapist or psychiatrist will tell you that. As a matter of fact, my wife is a psychologist, and we’ve discussed so-called ‘attention suicides’ before. Even if the person in question wasn’t trying to actually die, taking twenty of anything, calling up someone, and saying they are ending it all is a sign of some serious emotional problems.

Its obvious that Crichton’s understanding of psychology is similar to the understanding of history one gets from reading the backs of C&H sugar packets in greasy truck stops that look like the were used in the ending scenes of ‘Romeo is Bleeding’, while you wait for the ersatz Flo serving you to bring the strawberry waffles she raved on and on about to the point where you ordered them just so she’d get her Camel cigarette-laden breath out of your face long enough for you to take a much needed gasp of air that may have been soured by truck driver funk, but was at least breathable and slightly less carcinogenic than her terminations.

This flap is broken into by Ted, who announces a rather naked ‘Alien’ rip-off. We cut to the mess hall, where a newly awakened and strangely boisterous Harry is wolfing down all the food in sight while keeping up a non-stop banter about how great everything is. At one point Harry even starts to choke (just like Kane before the alien popped out of his chest), and I actually got out of my seat ready to use my whole bloody couch as a Penalty Flag, when Harry reveals that he simply choked on a morsel of food upon learning it was calamari ("I hate squid" he says).

Harry demonstrates some partially preternatural powers, such as knowing that Ted is wearing a frown, though Ted is behind Harry and well out of sight. Minor annoying point : while Harry is showing that another of his odd minor powers is the ability to discern the various ingredients and spices in his food, we learn that a small US Naval habitat set up on the ocean floor to study a crashed space ship would stock in its pantry, among other things : fresh parsley, tarragon, and chevret (goat’s cheese).

To give credit where its truly due, Jackson as an actor does pull off his part here, but that unfortunately only serves to highlight what an uninspired, phoned-in performance the rest of the cast serves up. When asked by Norman if he still holds by his earlier theory that they must all end up dying down here, Harry simply asks back "Are you afraid of dying, Norman?" A beat or two passes, and Harry cracks the most disturbingly telling yet subtle smile I’ve ever seen. Every time I watch this scene I have to applaud Jackson’s performance, but, as I said, it makes me wonder why an accomplished actor like Dustin Hoffman is doing so very little with his character in this picture. Harry is easily the only character that goes through serious changes in the film as a result of what he experiences. While the drastic comatose-to-life-of-the-party transformation is a bit cliched (or at least highly derivative), Jackson manages to avoid overdoing things, especially in his delivery of the line "Are you afraid of dying, Norman?".

Okay, enough praising, back to bashing the movie.

Norman and Ted’s subsequent conspiratorial ‘Harry is hiding something’ conversation is broken up when Edmonds (you remember her, right?) tells Ted that Barnes has sent for him, as there’s a problem with ‘The Computer’. Yeah, whenever specialized, proprietary military information systems have trouble, the military people working them usually consult with any astrophysicists at hand. Ted and Barnes try to diagnose the problem aloud, with phrases like this:

"Maybe you should purge it."
"I’ve purged it, it just keeps coming back."
"Is it a discharge from the buffer memory?"
"No, I think the helium is getting to the chips. The saturation effect"

<Deep Breath> Not gonna touch this one. Just let it be.

This computer problem manifests itself on the screens as a constantly scrolling display of random length strings of random alpha-numeric characters separated by random length spaces. When Harry enters the room, he says that if it was ‘the saturation effect’ the characters would be random (which they are), whereas these have a pattern (which they don’t). He taps a few keys and turns a sub-display that was showing a thermal graph of the Earth into a screen highlighting matching text sequences from the first scrolling display (no, really, I’m not kidding). Not content to wow us with this, Harry suggests "try binary", which Ted not only understands, but manages to execute with a few keystrokes of his own, reducing the alpha-numeric strings to simple base-10 (not binary) numeric strings (still randomly sized and spaced). Thus vindicated, Harry says "See - letter breaks.". Just don’t even touch it, man, let it be.

When SGS Barnes tells Ted that this communication is "Ultra-top secret" and to keep private anything translated, Harry laughs and asks that if Barnes were the sphere, how would he know the English alphabet. The obvious answer: the same way it appears on a keyboard (QWERTY, of course), to which Ted obviously adds " … reflected in an orb, spherically. Take a keyboard, wrap it onto a sphere, then starting with the middle key ‘G’ map it to the keys, spiraling out." They then proceed to do just that (graphically on one of the displays, of course). I mean, you know …. obviously.

This little treasure of a sequence reminds me of the scene near the end of Jurassic Park where the 13-year old prodigy (aren’t they all?) sits behind a terminal with a GUI more simplistic than Microsoft’s Bob OS and pronounces "This is UNIX" while merrily hacking away at it, only Sphere’s version has had any vestigial intelligence or reality connections removed from it.

"First thing I'm doing when I get back to Earth, er, the SURFACE, ..." Binary, ladies and gents. Binary.

This then allows them to translate the ‘binary’ sequences into corresponding keystrokes, to ‘decode’ the message being sent from the sphere. The displays which used to boast eye-popping colour and multiple child window capabilities now are reduced to a sub-TRS80 level of huge, blocky, 20 by 32 character white text. The first message spelled out? "HELLO. HOW ARE YOU? I AM FINE. WHAT IS YOUR NAME? MY NAME IS JERRY.", the all-caps format proving that the sphere uses Web-TV. At least he didn’t say "JerRY wanTZ ta KnoW WhERE alL da C00l WaREz aRe".

After some more inane dialogue from Jerry, and a demand from SGS Barnes for a last name (as he doesn’t want to put that he lost a crew member to an alien named ‘Jerry’ in his report), Norman expresses concern that Jerry said he was happy. This indicates an emotional being, and (after much beating around the bush) Norman asks what happens if Jerry gets mad?

This presents us with some new developments, and frightening possibilities. Or rather, it would have, had it not been in the trailer.

The next scene fades in with Norman whining repetitively "Edmonds? Edmonds, what is that sound? Edmonds, do you hear that? Edmonds? Edmonds? Barnes? Barnes, I get no answer from Edmonds, and I’m hearing strange noises. Barnes? Edmonds?" ad nauseum. While Norman is being a whiney little white boy in the control room, SGS Barnes is having some fun at Beth’s expense, implying that Norman has divulged her troubled past to him, saying that if Jerry could read Beth’s mind, "… he’d be bored with ours", all this in front of Ted.

After Norman is reduced to sounding literally like a frightened little kid, it's decided that the wisest course of action is to suit Little Big Wuss and Ms. Lithium 1996 up in their underwater gear, give them weapons, and send them outside the habitat to see what’s happened to Edmonds, Edmonds?, and what might be making that really strange, really BIG banging noise against the side of the habitat. Of course, this is while SGS Barnes sits in a chair in a nice warm, dry control room with a glass of Captain Morgan’s spiced rum (rather than a dangerously emotionally unstable person with an underwater firearm) at his side, which does give credit to Barnes’ intelligence, to say nothing of his survival instincts.

While Beth and Norman snipe at each other emotionally, Barnes now starts in with repeatedly asking "Beth? Norman? Beth? You guys find that thumping yet? Bueller? Bueller?" into the mike. Beth and Norman eventually spot the obviously lifeless body of Edmonds, Edmonds? floating in the same way as a dead fish, but need to work their way slowly to the body before it dawns on them that she’s dead.

Let’s all observe a moment of silence here, to mourn the passing of a character so well developed and endearing that she made us all feel like we knew her as a friend. We’ll all miss our dear, sweet Edmonds, Edmonds? . <snicker>

As Beth pronounces that Edmonds, Edmonds?’s body is like a rag-doll, and has been "completely pulverized", we cut to a macro-close up of the cover of a paperback version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, complete with giant squid artwork. Three seconds or so go by, and the book is moved aside to reveal Harry, looking strangely thoughtful, and whispering out loud the passage from the book which talks about giant squid. Then an immediate cut back to Beth and Norman in the water where Something Big and Unseen is banging on the habitat.

I’d like you to imagine what this might mean. Take all the time you need, and feel free to use the scratch paper and pencils handed out earlier. If, in the end, you do not come up with something close to "physical manifestation of conscious and/or unconscious thoughts, fears, and/or desires resulting in accidental mayhem and/or death", then I want you to pack up all your things, get out of the house, and never darken my door again, while I try to console your poor mother over all the love and affection we’ve wasted all these years on an incredibly dense and non-perceptive child. If you did get that part, but don’t make the additional connection of "Hey, just EXACTLY like in Forbidden Planet", then see me after class so we can discuss the need to broaden your cinematic horizons.

Meanwhile, back in Sphere, white objects looking like Rice Krispies blown up to the size of watermelons begin to rain down on Beth and Norman. Being the together PSYCHOLOGIST that he is, Norman starts begging Beth to explain what exactly is going with this phenomena that is just as new to her as it is to him. In the control room, Barnes delivers the ominous line : "Guys, I’m getting a big reading on the sonar. You’re not alone out there." (bum bum bummm)

Well, ‘ominous’ only if we’ve somehow forgotten the first time we heard it, when it was used as the log-line in the trailer.

Any stable person in their situation would be understandably freaked, but Norman and Beth (especially Norman) come apart like the cheap ten year old Hong Kong jeans that Meatloaf keeps trying to sew back together after $0.29 burger binges at White Castle, and they make their panicked, agonizingly (and I do mean agonizingly) slow return to the habitat. To put them at ease, Barnes gives them a count down of just how close the Something Big is getting to them, making sure he reminds them every now and again just how big it seems to be from where he’s sitting (nice and safe and warm and dry in the control room).

While the music does a good job of providing what little tension there is in the scene (gee, will the top two stars get killed half way through the film, we wonders?), the inevitable crescendo and its-over-now resolution music comes at a point where nothing visibly has changed on screen. That is to say, the large white things (eggs, we later learn) are still falling, the Something Big is still getting closer on the sonar screen, and Beth and Norman are still struggling to get to the habitat, when the music, and the music alone says "Its okay, they’re safe now". About six or so seconds later, we see the Big ‘blip’ on the sonar vanish, and Beth and Norman make it to the ladder (but are still outside, mind you).

This is poor editing in the extreme. Its enough of a sin to set up the 100% predictable "will they make it" sequence, along with music that tries to make you believe that Something Bad is about to happen, only to diffuse it as a nick-of-time escape, or just the household cat making all that noise. But to pull out this old trick that everyone knows is just a trick (and which no one but perhaps mentally retarded Cambodian refugees seeing their first motion picture thinks might possibly result in anything other than a false alarm this soon into the movie), but to then diffuse it only in the music, not the on-screen action?

Beth and Norman still fight for their lives, and the Big blip still looms closer, but the music says "it's cool, don’t sweat it" : this is inexcusably amateurish and never should have made it into the final cut of the film. Was it that hard to shift the music down six seconds in relation to the ‘action’? No need to even re-record it : just loop the same cue in six seconds later. Sheesh, if I can see this stuff, what do professional editors think? Well, they probably think that since my bitching won’t do anything to the tidy little paycheck Sphere’s editor has already deposited from this project, I might as well shut up about it and get on with my little review-thing (or what ever it is you do) like a good little boy.

After getting out of their underwater gear (a process they learned in their extensive eight hour training) Norman decides it's time to talk to Jerry again. In this conversation it's learned that Jerry can hear what the habitat dwellers are saying, and doesn’t need to be spoken to via keyboard. Naturally, this sits about as well with SGS Barnes as the construction of a Black Angus steak house does with the hippie owner of the neighboring organic vegan macro-biotic market and co-op. Even though Jerry has established that he hears what everyone is saying, Barnes asks Norman to tell Jerry that they want to discuss things in private (hello, 2001 : a Space Odyssey, anyone?).

Jerry, hearing this, proceeds to fill the display screen he communicates on with a scrolling series of "NO NO NO NO", prompting Norman to cut in all soothing like (and I do quote, oh my Brothers) "Jerry, use your words", not once, but TWICE. I use that phrase all the time, but as A JOKE, fer cryin’ out loud. Its kind of like saying "Where’s the beef?"- many people say it, but no one has ever said it and meant it seriously. Except perhaps for John Bobbit’s new girlfriend <ZING!> (thank you, tip your waitresses, ladies and gentlemen!).

In dealing with Jerry - the possibly immortal being with probably preternatural powers - Norman (the professional psychologist) acts precisely the way that psychologists on fictional TV shows do toward little children (including the hilarious ‘use your words’ remark). Not just what Norman says, but his delivery must simply be heard to be believed. Only don’t be taking a drink while you listen to this part, ‘cause it may will give you a ‘noser’. As Norman bumblingly (and patronizingly) explains how "entities" such as the contact team sometimes need to be alone, even though they want to have long talks with such a fascinating entity such as he, Jerry asks, "Are you afraid, Norman?" (hmm, where have we heard that question before, we wonders?), and goes ‘silent’. Gee, guess we’re going to find out what happens if Jerry gets mad, hey Norm?

Suddenly the eggs (Rice Krispies) start falling again, clogging up the habitat’s external thermal trans-conduction monopulse relay circuits (or other nonsensical thing of similar name), and the Something Big returns on sonar. Beth asks if the habitat has any external defenses (maybe a "phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range", since we’re ripping off other movies as it is?), and SGS Barnes says that the habitat is equipped with a device designed to take " … high voltage electricity and run it in a current over the outer skin".

Oh, COME ON! Not only are they blatantly ripping of yet another movie, the novel that movie was made from was shown in a tight close up not three minutes previous !! I was choking so hard at this rape of another sci-fi/fantasy story that I just about missed it when Barnes added that the way the defense system works, it starts an electrical fire whenever its used. Not ‘we run the risk of-’, not ‘with something this Big it might just –‘, but an authoritative IF x THEN y statement, and that’s the way is was BUILT to function. I’m going to ask that you shoot me now.

Dear reader, please shoot me. Thank you.

More pointless stuff happens, and Barnes remarks that the vague Rorschach blot on the sonar is exactly what he saw when Beth and Norman were outside (this line is clearly laid in via ADR, making me think that it was added after the fact to make sure that the audience ‘got’ that point). While the Big blip looks to me like a solarized photograph of a labia majora with a very large and sharpened #2 pencil pointing at the clitoris (oh man, did I just open myself up for analysis with that observation or what?) Ted says that it is clearly 40’ long, and Beth says it looks exactly like a squid (the same way a 3d version of the game ‘Star Castle’ Norman described looked exactly and clearly like a black hole to Ted earlier). Ted scoffs at this notion, which is odd, as large squid and other marine life have been postulated to exist at those depths, and are not considered beyond the realm of possibility by science.

As Norman pathetically tries to placate Jerry as if Jerry were the Little Boy Who Could Wish Things Into the Corn Field (which, essentially, he is, now that I think about it), SGS Barnes notes a ‘pressure drop’ and orders Ted to some other sub-control room for reasons he refuses to elucidate at the moment. More weird noises start up, and Jerry prints out on this display "IM HERE".

Arriving at the sub-control station, Ted finds bursting water lines, and insert shots show various rivets and (apparently cheap) weld joints coming apart throughout the habitat. Barnes tells Ted via intercom that the internal pressure in the habitat is dropping dangerously low, and that Ted must find the all-powerful Red Valve to fix things. Since Barnes seems to know how to run things and what to do to fix them, he must know where the little devices, including the Red Valve, are. This naturally leaves one to wonder why Barnes didn’t rush off to do it himself, rather than send Ted to someplace he might not even know about to look for a Valve he might not be able to find and work it in just the right way to save all of their lives within a very short time period, rather than stand in the control room barking out orders into a mic. Now, there is a perfectly good explanation for this, and I in fact know what it is, but, like the reasons for Barnes’ hushing up Ted’s airplane door remark, I’m not going to tell it to you.

Now, here’s the way the Red Valve works- you turn it only when you need to turn it, and only as much as you need to, and then you back it off again. If you don’t back it off, or if you turn it too far, the pressure goes too high (and, we assume, the habitat will "literally burst"). Why is this built like this? So that when Ted gets as far as turning it and gets knocked out by a Random Flying Something in the sub-control room, the tension can continue as Beth and Norman race after to finish the job. Oh, there’s some stuff shown on screen about how Barnes needs to watch the sensitive pressure gauges to know when to tell Ted in the sub-control room to stop, but no one’s going to convince me that the whole station wasn’t built to put some astrophysicist in the way of the Random Flying Something.

Brief aside : who designed this habitat, anyway? The escape system is kept far off-site, the only things you can ‘control’ in the control room seem to be a microphone and a few TRS-80s, and the defensive systems on board apparently work by setting the place on fire from within, giving nasty blisters to anything touching the outside. Maybe the habitat was just a kit the Navy picked up at Fry’s Electronics …

After turning the Red Valve back to where it belongs, Barnes notes that the Something Big is still holding on to them, and that they’ll get killed if they don’t shake it. He therefore tells Norman to hit the switch that electrifies the Nautil-, er, I mean the habitat’s outer skin. Beth, actually possessing a short term memory, begs Norman not to do this, as it will start a fire. Barnes yells into the intercom "Don’t listen to her, Norman, she’s crazy", when it was he himself who told them just how their state-of-the-art defensive system works only moments earlier. This is only done to set up our first "will Norman trust Beth when he knows she at least was crazy in the past" tension point. Barnes yells at Norman to pull the lever (again, surprisingly little controlling can be done in the ‘control room’, where Barnes is) as Beth, in tears, pleads with Norman to trust her and not pull the lever. Being the kind, caring, psychologist he is … Norman listens to Barnes and pulls the lever.

A second or two goes by, and then, just as Barnes said would happen, alarms ring out indicating an electrical fire. So, picture this : I hand you a black box with a single button on it. I tell you that its my invention to allow me to speedily order a pizza and hot wings combo from Papa John’s (my favourite local delivery place), but the down side is that I designed it in such a way as to blow up your car each and every time its used. You start to question the possible design flaws you’ve sensed, when we both feel a rumblin’ in our guttie-wuts (oh, my Brothers), and decide pizza would go down quite nicely. I repeatedly tell you to hit the button, as we need food. A friend of mine, with whom you’ve fought previously, reminds you of the blowing-up part which you recall I myself told you about, and he puts forth the suggestion that pushing the button might not be advisable. Whom would you side with?

"You afraid of acting, Dustin?" I still stand by my interpretation of this image ...

The ensuing action is far too convoluted for me to relate, but here’s the outcome : much of the habitat is ruined by fire, Barnes is cut in half by a door (just go with me), Ted has his face burned off and then dies, Norman gets a Boo-Boo on his head and is knocked out, and Harry sleeps exhibiting massive REMs (gee, what could that mean, we wonders?). Surprisingly the one with the coolest head throughout all of this is ole Beth "time to slip out of this dress and into 20 Nembutal" Halperin. I think there was something the film makers were trying to say with this, but it got lost in the quagmire.

The aftermath scene opens on a camera shot of body bags in a hold (‘Alien’, anyone? Or ‘Southern Comfort’?) and quickly fades to Norman having another ‘Rain-Man does pop-child psychology to the Omnipotent Gold Ball’ session. Jerry expresses remorse at the absence of the "entity Ted", and asks Norman to return him. Norman replies that he can not. Jerry asks why not, and Norman starts off with the ‘its beyond my power, I’m a mere mortal’ bit, segues into Peter Graves’ exceedingly cheesy "he learned too late that man is a feeling creature" speech from the end of ‘It Conquered the World’, and ends up just about telling Jerry how he (Norman) has trouble with erections ‘cause momma didn’t take him to the circus when he was a kid, and does Jerry know anything that might help him with this. Not sure if they were intentionally going for a patient-therapist role reversal here, but that’s what they got anyway, and man is it ever unintentionally funny.

Jerry, as thoroughly disinterested in Norman’s pathetic introspection as the rest of us, incongruously interrupts with "DID YOU LIKE THE GIANT SQUID?" Norman thinks for a minute, then asks in all seriousness "Did you do that, Jerry?"

And this is the man that wrote the protocol report on first contact with alien civilizations which the government adopted as gospel. Can’t believe we actually beat the Russians, in the end.

As Jerry, like a retarded giant innocently unaware of his own strength, asks if Norman would like him to manifest more squid, Norman mumbles a series of things leading up to the statement that Jerry, with all his power doesn’t have the power to stop himself. Ah, I think I would have come to the conclusion that Jerry simply needs to be hipped to the consequences of his actions, so that he realises he’s hurting those he says he wants to play with, but then again … I have a brain.

Norman’s diagnoses prompts Jerry to reply "STOP CALLING ME JERRY". Remember this- it will become highly important later. Meanwhile, Norman repeatedly asks Jerry what he should call him instead, with no answer.

This, my fourth time through the film (yes, on purpose no less) just gave me the idea for a new companion game to the Poltergeist Trilogy Carol-Anne Drinking Game, and it needs to be played with two people (or at least in pairs). Before rolling the film, each person (or one from each pair) picks either the phrase "The Sphere" or the word "Jerry" as their cue to imbibe, with the other person(s) taking the other. I’m not sure myself who would win out, here. While "The Sphere" has great long-term potential throughout the film, "Jerry" packs quite a punch in a relatively short time space. Guess this might be the old Boxer vs. Wrestler contest. Anyone trying this out is encouraged to let me know the results, though any attempts to lay the liability for any resultant injuries or damages (real or imagined) at my feet just ‘cause I suggested it will be answered by my Curley™ brand Team of Lawyer. So there.

[author’s note : if you do not read the USENET newsgroup SCI.SKEPTIC, then there is no way for me to explain or for you to understand the ‘Team of Lawyer’ reference above. It’s kind of a USENET kook Zen thing]

Back in the film, we open on Harry in the mess hall still engrossed in his book. Norman comes in, and is amazed to observe that Harry is blithely going on about what a good book ‘20k’ is, unaware of and unconcerned with the attack and subsequent disastrous fire not long past. Norman tries to analyze Harry’s odd detachment, but Harry rebukes his attempts, and raises suspicions with his seemingly innocuous remark : "With all your panicking and running around … what have you accomplished?" (the same could be asked of Hoffman’s acting, by the way).

As Norman tries to clue Harry in to the bleakness of their situation Beth walks in. In what can only be described as an unintentional ‘walk-on’ cum remind-the-audience-of-a-plot-point segment, Beth starts up her conversation with the men by saying "Somebody has to go reset the mini-sub. You know, if you don’t reset it every twelve hours it’ll float to the surface. Remember?" She also tags on the helpful line of "If the storm clears, you know, it might be our only way back out." GET IT? This kind of dialogue is intended to ‘bring up to speed’ those types of people who’s only major realisation at the end of ‘Usual Suspects’ was that Kevin Spacey didn’t really have a limp after all.

When Harry offers to do the sub reset (‘cause if you don’t do it every twelve hours … well, you know where I’m going here), Norman says he’ll go instead. In another conspiratorial conversation, this time with Beth, Norman lays out that he thinks that there’s something wrong with Harry (as 5 year old retarded girls in the audience scream ‘Well, DUH!’ at the screen). Norman makes it out to the sub to do the necessary resetting, and while he fiddles his way around we see Beth suiting up and heading out, presumably to the space craft.

This is where things get real fun for sarcastic bastards like me who have not an ounce of pity for our fellow man if he’s an idiot. Small bubbles begin to escape Norman’s suit. Again displaying the confidence, self-reliance, and cool-headed demeanor that is his trademark, Norman begins an escalating cacophony of frantic whining and pathetic pleas for Beth’s help that would put Newt from ‘Aliens’ to shame. He even utters lines like "Beth, can you tell me what to do?" Well, how about "Try not to die, Norman", or "Make sure you don’t breath the water"? Its at times like this that I really wish I could spell ‘schadenfreude’.

This is the second time that Norman, in infantile neediness, has thrown the responsibility for explaining and fixing things clearly at Beth’s feet (which is about as high as Hoffman can reach <ZING!> thanks, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been great, really!) The first time, the ‘its raining eggs’ event, can almost be understood, as Beth is the supposed biologist (who doesn’t realise that coral can’t grow without light, but I digress), so perhaps she might know something Norman didn’t. But this time its utterly disgusting. All of the contact team members had the same extensive 480 minute course on their diving gear, so why is Beth suddenly the expert here? Also, since his trouble seems to be that his suit is leaking, why does he repeatedly implore (and I do quote, oh my Brothers) "I gotta get outta here. Tell me what to do." (emph. NORMAN’S). Again, I never had eight whole hours of deep water dive survival training, but the first thing that comes to my inexperienced mind is "GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WATER!"

This excessive whininess of Norman’s could be acceptable in either of two ways:

    1. Norman was shown previously to be totally self-reliant, and this is an affect on his character from the sphere, or just the pressure of everything going on
    2. -or-

    3. Norman was not written to be a PhDed professional psychologist for the FAA, specialising in POST TRAUMATIC STRESS disorders !

Number one would be the best, as it would make for that seemingly rare occurrence called ‘character development’. Especially when coupled with his background, as this then gives the viewer an "Oh how the mighty have fallen" thing with Norman, and helps us care about him. But if you’re not going to do that, why make the most pathologically dependant character a SHRINK, fer cryin’ out loud? Its not as if the movie were satire, where such an idiosyncratic portrayal is the entire point. See Hoffman’s more enjoyable performance as a quirky movie producer in "Wag the Dog" (which Hoffman and ‘Sphere’s director Barry Levinson filmed whilst ‘Sphere’s FX crew were taking lunch one day) for instance. This is (or so they would have us believe) a sci-fi/drama, and such odd characterizations force the viewer to wonder how someone so ungrounded as Norman could have even managed to pass the "ICS Correspondents Schools" program to work in refrigeration (or PC repair, nursing, auto mechanics, bookkeeping, or gun repair), much less become a degreed, licensed psychologist.

So, back in the film, an interior shot of the control room shows Harry watching Norman on one of the monitors. For a moment or two we think Harry might just sit there as Norman dies (the way Norman sat there and listened to Fletcher die), but he eventually opens the com system and helps Norman get back to the habitat. Even after Harry starts to help in a calm, reassuring voice, and even after Harry gives simple, un-ambiguous directions to him, Norman still sputters things like "Harry, I’m hurting. I don’t know which way.", making us wonder why the hell Harry is even bothering, sphere-induced superpowers or no.

As if Norman needed more of a reason to ‘befoul his suit’, cheap stick puppet- er, ‘sea snakes’ begin to menace him. Given the expository, repetitive, and overly declaratory nature of the dialog thus far, I wonder why they didn’t have Beth’s "invariably lethal" commentary about sea snakes running aloud through Norman’s head. This could have been further worked into an artistic gem had they added in Beth’s face (or Pia Zadora’s, perhaps?) spinning around Norman’s head as the lines are spoken, but alack, alas, it was not to be. Apparently ‘The Lonely Lady’(qv Ken’s treatment thereof) was one of the few films they chose not to rip off.

Somehow our plucky little shrink manages to get hisself back to the habitat where, pantingly, he asks Harry where Beth was, as she was supposed to be in the control room while he went out to the sub (just in case he developed a suit leak, ran into invariably lethal sea snakes, or hadda go baffroom, it seems). Harry says that he doesn’t know, Beth was never there. They notice her suit is gone and head to the control room.

On one of the monitors they see Beth returning from the space craft. Norman opens up a channel, and asks what she’s doing, to which she replies that the habitat is out of food and she was looking for some more in the space craft. Harry tells Norman that there’s plenty of food in the galley. Uh oh, our second "will Norman trust Beth when he knows she at least was crazy in the past" moment seems to loom on the horizon.

Sure enough, when Beth makes it back, Harry and Norman square off against her. Norman actually has the nerve to get both parental and child-like with Beth at the same time. Parental, in that he reproachfully asks here where she was, as the habitat is not some hotel she can just waltz in and out of any time she feels like (well, I made that last part up), and child like, in that the reason why Beth has been such a Bad Girl for leaving the habitat is that it meant she wasn’t there for Norman when Norman lost the ability to think for himself. Norman carries this point on and on, getting louder and louder, demonizing her for not thinking of him and so belaboring his laughable contention that he could have easily died out there to the point that it took all of my reserve not to find out where Hoffman lives so I could drive to his house and bitch-slap him for about two hours. His continuous bleating would be bad enough if he was going on about a valid point (which he’s not), and if he weren’t a PROFESSIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST (which, or so they would have me believe, he is).

As an aside, Norman’s whole "Where were you ?!? I almost DIED out there ?!?" rant reminds me of a ‘Simpsons’ episode. Marge comes home late one night to find the house in shambles, holes in the walls, and Homer hiding behind the overturned couch holding a shotgun. When she asks what happened, Homer replies reproachfully "Oh nothing. Only a little problem with something called THE BOOGIE MAN, and it never would have happened if you had been here to keep me from acting irresponsibly." Thing is, in ‘The Simpsons’, that was supposed to be funny.

As this bit develops, Beth says there was no food when she looked in the cupboards, and Harry offered to take her place in the control room watching over Norman while she went to look for more food in the space craft. Now the cupboards are full, and Harry denies having had that conversation with Beth. Oh, yeah, and Norman, rather vindictively for any person, quite unprofessionally for any therapist, and unconscionably mean-spirited and evil for an ex-lover, harangues Beth (who’s obviously starting to crack) and does everything to try and emotionally break her, short of circling around her taunting "1-2-3 CRY! 1-2-3 CRY!".

Norman : a real laid back, together kinda guy. Norman : a warm, considerate, nurturing kinda guy.

But, amid all the disgust we’re feeling at Norman for the obvious reasons, there’s another point the viewer should bear in mind. Norman has quite recently confided to Beth that he has grave suspicions about and fears of Harry, to the point of not trusting Harry to go out to the mini-sub. He’s taken in such facts as Harry’s sleeping through the earlier disaster, as well as his bizarre disaffection regarding the aftermath and deaths of Ted, Barnes, Fletcher and Edmonds, Edmonds? and come to the rational conclusion that something is not right in a Real Big Way with Harry. Now, all of the sudden, he’s taking Harry’s word on what happened as gospel, and sucking up to him whilst verbally denigrating a woman (probably the only one) who was kind enough to let him even anywhere near her happy zone at some point in their past.

And I’m supposed to feel something for Norman, which doesn’t include fantasies of carbolic acid and glass jock-straps, am I?

All I have to say is that Norman either :

  1. Has no short term memory
  2. Is going through some odd variant of the Helsinki Syndrome with the Harry/Sphere combo
                                -or-
  3. Has always wondered what it would be like, … ya know, … with a man, and is trying to make points.

Out of all this muck comes the intimation that Beth went inside the sphere.

As Norman paces the floor of the mess hall, he stoops down to pick up his newest bestest bud Harry’s book from the floor. As he goes to hand it to Harry, he notices that Harry is already reading it. Not another copy of the book, mind you, but the same exact book. Harry doesn’t even look up as Norman begins to freak (again).

At this point, the movie had me for a bit. It was truly a well done moment. Director Levinson proceeded to dump all over that by having Norman frantically search the cupboards and shelves (which Beth said had been empty, then were filled with food later) only to find them crammed with identical copies of "20,000 Leagues", and react with ever increasing alarm as each new compartment or shelf was found to contain more of what was filling the others.

Now I, myself, would have been sufficiently spooked (note: not ‘sp00ked’- different meaning) upon finding a single döppelgänger of a paperback my creepy underwater chum was engrossed in. That jest aint natral, y’understan? Hell, I’ll even be generous and say that subsequently finding a cupboard full of these little simulacra would add to my existing fright … slightly. But I can’t see how say three dozen identical copies of a book there should only be one of is significantly any more frightening than the one extra copy that started the whole mess.

I wonder what Norman’s reaction was when he first learned that Beth had two breasts and not just one ….

Cut away (finally, thank god) to a quick shot of Beth at her mirror taking numerous pills (welcome home, Ms. Halperin, glad to have you back). Gee, wonder what might have driven her to this? I’m sure it has nothing at all to do with any savage psychic abuse leveled at her by a twisted little needy dwarf that she, in an admitted psychotic state, was foolish enough to let see her Dirty Pillows years ago (her mom did say that "they’re all gonna laugh at you!", you know), so I sure hope the movie lets us in on what’s bothering her.

Unfortunately this cuts back rather quickly to Norman trying to have another ‘session’ with Jerry, and I really just don’t feel like getting into it. Yeah, there’s stuff I could rank on about the movie, and things that might be important to the plot, but I just don’t feel like it. That’s how ticked off I am at the last ten minutes of the movie.

Norman, bite me, you colossal little wanker.

Okay, so the part of the narrative where I have to jump back in revolves around Norman saying out loud to himself all those things he’s thinking of and reasoning through (just like we all do, ya know?). In a sequence that takes about TWENTY TIMES AS LONG as it should, Norman puts it together than when Harry first came up with that sphere-wrapped keyboard decoding thing, that he didn’t assign the proper letters to the numbers being sent. Thirty or so years later, Norman writes down the revised translation of the first message, the significant part being "MY NAME IS HARRY". Ah, I understand now. Chazz Palmenteri was Keyser Söze! (?)

For Norman to have taken this long to come to such a simple deductive conclusion which the audience has figured out long ago is rather like the US finally landing on the Moon and finding a Starbucks there waiting for them.

Oh, and here’s the best part. Here’s the part where I get to tear a film apart, not on the basis of my subjective opinions or judgements, but on that lovely little universal principal called ‘violation of internal plot continuity’. This is where a movie at one point states unambiguously that no vampires can ever under any circumstances be exposed to any amount of sunlight without instantly being destroyed, and then has a scene an hour later where the ‘Lost Boys’ show off their new Italian-style thong swimsuits on Pebble Beach during a Spring Break volleyball tourney.

Based on Norman’s reasoning, when Harry set up the computer to translate, he mis-mapped things so that HArry came out as JErry. I’m not even going to mention that, while ‘h’ and ‘j’ could be mis-mapped given their proximity, ‘a’ and ‘e’ would be a stretch (yes, I know saying that I’m not mentioning it constitutes mentioning it. Get over it, okay?) No, what’s important is that we accept what the movie is telling us. "JERRY" should have been translated as "HARRY".

Okay, then, so why weren’t all the REST of the ‘H’s and ‘A’s mis-keyed as well? Why, using only the principals the movie itself is putting forth, didn’t the initial message read:

"JALLO. JOW ERA YOU? I EM FINA. WJET IS YOUR NEMA? MY NEMA IS JERRY."

<sigh>

Just in case the audience isn’t as sharp and together as ole Norman (which is like being not quite as sexy as John Merrik), the next scene fades in to Norman telling Beth all that he’s figured out with his widdo o bwain. Since that isn’t insulting enough to our varied intelligences, Norman draws this out and out and out, and then Beth tops it off by spitting out that old cliched line "So, what you’re saying is that …" followed by a repetition of everything we’ve just heard a few hundred times, and had figured out quite some time ago on our own.

So the plan they come up with is this : drug Jerry – I mean HARRY (had my laptop keyboard mis-mapped, you see) - and wait until the storm passes so they can escape without the nasty black man making any nasty things appear and bite off things they’d rather keep attached to themselves. And, of course, its not going to be that easy. They subdue the sleeping Harry rather easily, and inject him with one of Beth’s concoctions. Harry falls asleep almost immediately, and Beth and Norman continue their preparations.

While Norman is brushing his teeth (surprisingly without the assistance of two oral hygienists and a Rabbi), a few sea snakes attack him. Beth calmly strides into Norman’s cabin, picks one up, and makes the rest simply go away (hmm. "There is no bee", ya think?). Beth then asks Norman to go to the lab, saying there is something she needs to show him there. Doofus that he is, Norman goes in, and Beth, still outside, closes and locks the airtight door behind him. For some reason, there is no handle of any kind on Norman’s side of the door (this isn’t a dungeon, it’s a bloody lab!). Beth tells Norman via intercom that he’s got the same power as Harry, and thus poses the same threat. Norman doesn’t believe her. Beth tells Norman to inject himself with the nearby needle, which contains the same stuff they pumped Harry with. Yet another ‘will Norman trust blahblahblah’ scene, leaving the viewer wondering if Beth is trying to kill Norman with an overdose, or if she’s telling the truth.

Well, we’d be wondering that if we, like the script writers, conveniently forgot the part an hour ago that SHOWED Norman going into the sphere.

Norman tries to convince Beth that he's not really an insensitive wanker. Ladies and gentlemen, Norman will now floss without the aid of a net!

Norman decides that the best thing to do is to open the outer hatch, exit the habitat, and swim around to the ‘moon pool’ (since they ripped off the general concept from ‘Abyss’ I assume they ripped off the name for the docking bay as well). Thankfully Mr. "your body would literally burst" dive master earlier in the film established that, thanks to the pressurization process, they could survive in the water without hard suits, so we can buy Norman swimming outside the habitat. Unfortunately, in that very same sentence, that very same professional told them that such an activity would be unwise as you would succumb to hypothermia and die in under two minutes (his words, not mine). So it’s a bit hard to buy Norman’s five minute-plus Cousteau sans suit session.

Eventually Norman makes his distinctly unfrozen (and apparently not even chilled) way back into the habitat, while at the same time Beth is having a freak-out session because of some of her own ‘manifestations’, proving that she too has entered the sphere at some point. Hey, ho, the tension is quite palpable, is it not? Watching Norman fiddling impotently with a door, the following question came to mind for Mr. Hoffman : I bet ‘Marathon Man’ feels like a long, long time ago, doesn’t it, Dustin?

As Norman rejoins Beth and tries to help her with her realization of having The Power, Jerry, no, wait, Harry (damn, I keep doing that) comes down to join them. As we prep for a group hug involving the now-omnipotent trio, a computer voice announces over the PA that the explosives Beth planted around the space craft in a whimsical little tiff are about to detonate, igniting the vast stores of fuel the craft still carries, causing much discomfort (as well as inducing a state of non-existence) to all living things in the area, and even starts to do a countdown to detonation out loud. This scene is in no way reminiscent of the end of ‘Alien’ where the ship’s computer counted down the time to self-destruct, … as long as we’ve neither seen nor heard of ‘Alien’ in the first place.

As the team tries to escape to the inconveniently placed escape vehicle, their ‘manifestation’ powers work against them : Harry’s logical deduction that they must die down there (mentioned earlier) causes him to ‘manifest’ them all back on the space craft, with no escape in sight. Then someone else imagines them on the sub, only to have another person’s ‘manifestation’ remove the controls. This jumps back and forth for some time in confused edits and shots, until Norman (easily the coolest of the three in a crisis situation <snort>) manifests them on their way to the surface, and hurrah, they make it up just as the huge explosion they barely escape licks at their heels.

On to the home stretch, folks. Hang in there, its almost over.

Now we come to the part of the film that, all kidding and sarcasm aside, feels like it was written by an entirely different team of screen writers. While waiting for the Guvmint people to come and interrogate them, the three surviving principals discuss both what they are going say happened, and ponder why it is that they have managed to survive where logic dictates they should be dead (following Harry’s early reasoning about the ‘Unknown Event’ entry in the space craft’s log). There’s some unsupported paranoia about what the Guvmint will do with them now that they have The Power, and the answer they come up with to solve everything is simple : use that power to make themselves forget all that happened.

No, really, that’s what they came up with. No, I am not making this up just to make the movie sound stupider than it already is, that is the ending Levinson went with.

Talking about this part is easy, as I don’t need to add in anything or come up with any clever little observations to sound funny : the three stand in a ring and join hands, solemnly discuss how it was that they were given this great gift and proved that they are not ready and how humanity is therefore not ready, and then they invoke The Power to make themselves forget what happened. All the while, shots are cut in of the sphere rising from the blast zone and depths of the ocean, eventually breaking the surface and soaring into the sky (and, we assume, outer space), all being witnessed by the crews of the dozen or so ships which comprise "half the Pacific fleet".

"Any minute now that things gonna BURST!" Nothing I can really add here ...

Goofy dialogue establishes that the trio have indeed forgotten what transpired, and the ending credits roll. And yes, this all happens within as brief a time as my terseness in the last couple paragraphs is meant to imply.

Okay, I believe. I believe I have the Power to forget that I ever was exposed to a movie called ‘Sphere’. Forget all the pain its caused you, Doug. Forget ….. foorrgeettt ………..

Afterthoughts

Wow. I mean … wow. Each time I watched this film I grew to hate it more and more, and picked up on reasons to hate it which I hadn’t caught previously. Kind of like the anti-‘Lost Highway’ for me (each time I saw ‘Lost Highway’ I grew more fond of the film, as I didn’t try to make any sort of sense out of any of it). Some of the more obvious parts hit you upside the head from a mile away : Norman’s character (more on him later), how much was given away in the trailer, the blatant rip-offs from other films, and that cutting-room-floor-scrap of an ending.

Then there’s the more insidious little bastards, the one’s you don’t always see right away, but they’re there none the less : coral at 1,000 feet, Norman’s apparent resistance to hypothermia, the lack of a handle on one side of an internal bulkhead door, etc. Its like seeing a truly funny comedy numerous times to pick up on all the lines you missed because you were laughing at another one, only with ‘Sphere’ it’s the sound of your retching covering up Norman’s second invocation of "use your words". I think I’ll be putting this movie in its storage case (yes, I actually own this thing. On DVD, no less) and putting it on the shelf for quite some time. Unless my wife (who is honestly coincidentally named ‘Beth’) misbehaves again, and I have to punish her.

Speaking of punishing those that love you, how about that Norman, hey? It was no exaggeration on my part above where I said I was too ticked off at Hoffman’s character to further detail a scene. I was really that disgusted with Norman.

I said it before, and I’ll say it again : Norman, bite me, you colossal little wanker.

Again, if Norman had been shown to be even a moderately self-reliant and together person, then later was seen to panic over a minor air leak to the point where he had to have someone telling him that he should get back to the habitat, it could have worked. Why not work in expositions of past events, or even events early within the time frame of the movie, of Norman ‘talking down’ a hysterical person, showing how he’s always been the one who can keep his head, and get through someone else’s panic to save them from themselves. Then, when the tables are turned, it does a wonderful job of communicating just how badly things are coming apart for everyone, now that even level-headed Norman seems to have lost basic survival skills.

My apologies for the repetition here, but failing to do this, and still constructing a character who’s entire makeup is so self-contradictory outside of a parody or satirical setting just plain fails. What if Dirty Harry had scenes where he couldn’t bring himself to stand up for himself when accosted by a biker in a bar? If Harry is so reticent to start trouble (either for lack of courage, or genuine pacifistic beliefs), why does he in other settings ventilate suspected criminals with such gay abandon? If Norman needs such parasitic interactions with normal, well balanced human beings to survive, as is shown in the film, how did he ever manage to become a psychologist?

Maybe even if it was a minor flaw; say, he’s cool and together in all situations except has an irrational fear of snakes (a-la Indiana Jones), or is overly claustrophobic? I’ll buy that, no problem. But not someone who demonstrates such broad-based overall ‘needing’ as Norman. I know I used the word ‘infantile’ above in my review already, but it is truly apt when speaking of Norman. Infants do not understand what is happening to them, can not defend themselves, and can’t even get around on their own if they so wish, and neither can Norman ("Where do I go? How do I get back?" during the ex-habitatum freak out).

Readers are invited to optionally insert a comment to the effect of Norman being able to shop at the same clothing stores as infants owing to his stature, at their discretion of course.

And what makes an excessively needy man-child all the more endearing to the world at large? Make him a petty, spiteful little ungoverned prick. Those reading this who know me personally know that I’m something of a hot head at times. Where I would say ‘mercurial’ others might say ‘bad tempered jerk’, but the point is that I’m no paragon of emotional restraint. So my indictment of Norman should carry some serious weight. The most infuriating representation of Norman’s character is, of course, the ‘blame Beth for not saving me from myself’ scene where Norman kisses up to Harry while smashing an emotional steel-toed boot into his former lover’s face.

Let’s take this progressively on three levels. As nothing more than a human being, his accusations, especially when Beth begins to break down, seem far too cruel for the situation. But Norman is also a professional psychologist, and, in fact, had Beth as a patient at one point. Given this, I can not begin to fathom the pettiness and lack of emotional development needed to not only fail to respect a person’s mental health problems, but to use privileged knowledge of those problems actively as a weapon against them. And, of course, the pinnacle (or rather, abyssal trough) of this is the fact that Norman and Beth were former lovers. What little dialogue there is on the subject suggests that Norman was at fault for the break up (the ‘gee Beth I thought you knew I was married’ remark Beth makes). So its not at all likely that Norman has abandonment issues with her, or that she broke his heart so deeply in the past that he tried to get back at her.

No, this is the woman that you betrayed by concealing the fact that you were married. And when she was driven to suicide (even if it was a ‘fake’ suicide as you contend), who did she turn to in her darkest hour? You, you colossal little wanker.

As with Norman’s neediness, if this viciousness were shown as a developed trait and was seen to stem from the sphere’s influence, or a breakdown on Norman’s part, I could sympathize. I’m sure many others could or would not, but I personally would be willing to withhold judgement on such a cruel person if, and here’s the key point, if both the character’s past and the plot line of the movie suggest that there will be a moment where this character comes to his senses and must own his past cruelty, without the shield of retaining that cruelty. How do you hurt most evil people? Show them a mirror.

An excellent example of this is to be found at the end of ‘Falling Down’, where Michael Douglas’ character (known only as ‘Dfens’ from his license plate), after a full day’s spree of seemingly righteous violence, suddenly comes to, and asks/tells policeman Robert Duvall "I’m the bad guy?". In that moment, Dfens has looked into his own soul and seen how truly dark all those actions were which individually seemed justifiable.

Nope, don’t get that for Norman, either. The closest is the near group-hug where all come to the warm, touchy-feely conclusion that they really don’t want to kill each other in horrible, bloody ways with their manifestations after all, they suppose. Practically a triumvirate of Leo Buscallias, these guys. And these are the ones we, as the ticket-buying audience who could be home doing a load of laundry right now, are supposed to care for.

Leaving the subject of the characters to talk about the plot for a moment, the inclusion of a few red herrings and dead ends involving possible Guvmint cover-ups (why’d the space craft dent when Ted hit it, etc.) and such is a rather puzzling touch to have added. If the market they were trying to tap into was the now-omnipresent I-Want-To-Believe portion of the public (with its excessive, non-critical credulity), then the few paltry references and utter lack of further development in the film will hardly even satiate the average conspiracy theorist or UFO buff long enough for the ride back home from the theater to catch the late showing of ‘Sightings’ on the sci-fi channel.

On the other side of that coin, totally removing these plot cul-de-sacs would have almost no impact on the film’s overall drama (such as it is) in the end. Sure, for a moment or two they may have had us wondering, but that was it. They toss us a ‘clue’, then close the book on that idea forever. Its not as if the film is a mystery, where we’re being given possible suspects or motives. No, these little threads are nothing more than dramatic prestidigitation, mere attempts to get us interested in potential (but non-existent) developments, when there’s nothing there but smoke and mirrors (and not even a scantily clad assistant named Dominique wheeling things around).

So the question becomes one of wondering why these red herrings were tossed out. All I can think of is that they were in fact trying to hook into the believer/X-Philes demographic, without sinking into the paranoid morass of that belief system to the point of alienating the more science-minded sci-fi fans. In short, they were sitting on the fence, trying to rake in audiences from both sides. Of course, this leaves the believers asking why they didn’t resolve some key points raised, while the skeptics wonder why they even brought them up in the first place.

And, of course, the tacked-on end has to be mentioned. Rather than focus on the obvious of how it seemed like an afterthought, or a fourth-choice conclusion spliced on after numerous test audience rejections of the forerunners, let’s look at it from within the movie itself.

Essentially, what has happened is that some über-alien (or Deus Ex Machina thereof) has decided to grant near omnipotence to some imperfect humans, without even letting them know about it, and is (presumably) sitting in judgement on what they do with this power. Even if the sphere were to tell Harry "Hey, ever be stuck in traffic and just really wish that you had a Coke right then? Well, guess what?", granting such power to an effectively randomly selected human is fraught with obvious peril. Imbuing them with the ability to manifest reality from their conscious or unconscious thoughts without letting them know this is inviting disaster. To top it off, the sphere seems to be there to see what we will do with said power, as it only leaves after the surviving team members decide to do the ‘right thing’ and give up the power.

And, given that it was found in the cargo hold of a time traveling space ship, its done this very thing before, only to a crew of astronauts that wasn’t as ‘together’ as our gang of actors, and consequently suffered horrible deaths at their own hands, three hundred years before they were even born. I can hear that old grail knight from ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ even now : "They chose … poorly."

When you boil it down, the sphere is like one of those immature god-beings a certain TV sci-fi series would throw at us every now and again : a golden judgmental little Tremain the all powerful who, if the team had decided to keep the power instead, would have ordered them hanged by the neck until they were "Dead, dead, dead!" (last ‘Star Trek’ in-reference I’ll make, I swear).

In closing, here’s three thoughts to take with you :

During the ‘bombs about to go off’ sequence, which is after all three have come to terms with their powers, why didn’t someone simply ‘de-manifest’ the bombs, ‘manifest’ them off, or ‘manifest’ them a safe distance away?

At the end, the trio only wish to "forget what happened". They do not wish for themselves to NO LONGER HAVE THE POWER. Ergo, they still have the Power, and have lost the knowledge of its existence and perils, which was bought with the blood of four innocent people. This means that the next time paragon-of-emotional-stability Beth has disturbing thoughts, fantasies, nightmares or what have you …

And, finally, did any one of them think to ‘manifest’ Ted, Barnes, Fletcher, and/or Edmonds, Edmonds? back alive again? So, the only ones to survive the test of The Power are the only three who were actually given the Power, and subsequently failed said test horribly?

The Sphere Wanker

Was this an incredibly pathetic piece of pretentious tripe which defiled all my sensibilities, or is it just me?

Review by Douglas Milroy