Sphere (1999)

Dir. Barry Levinson

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L Jackson

Synopsis: When navy divers discover a spaceship 1000 feet below the surface of the ocean, a hand-picked team of experts is sent down into deep sea habitats to investigate. What they discover about the craft, its crew, and its cargo, quickly becomes overshadowed by strange and deadly manifestations that plague the team. Will they discover the truth behind the ship and the manifestations … and will they live to tell about it?

Sphere is based on a novel by Michael Crichton, best known for Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain and Westworld. If you’ve seen the first two on that list, the setup here will feel awfully familiar: a fantastical discovery, a group of hand-picked scientists sent to investigate, and a series of unfolding events equally thrilling and terrifying.

Here our hapless scientists – played by Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L Jackson, Liev Schreiber and more – find themselves not in beautiful tropical islands, or in high-tech underground research laboratories, but in the – at times literally – crushing depths of the ocean. There they investigate a mysterious crashed spaceship, finding out many curious things about its origin and former occupants before stumbling across its cargo; a perfect metal sphere. As innocuous as the object seems, its presence quickly turns ominous, and the scientists retreat to their deep sea habitat. As things start to go wrong outside in the deep ocean, the scientists start to realise that the danger may be originating from within. 

It’s a setup absolutely dripping with potential tension, realised with wonderful set design, great performances, and some excellent set-pieces. Levinson approaches the film with a level of restraint and maturity sorely lacking from some of the other late-90s sci-fi offerings (Alien Resurrection certainly could’ve benefited from this treatment, for starters). The use of title cards to indicate the gradual progression of time feels more than a little taken from The Shining, and you’re left with the impression that Levinson was definitely aiming for a similarly mature horror offering.

There are many such touches of other films within Sphere, and this might actually work against it. The initial exploration of the spaceship is very reminiscent of Alien, but the payoff is a metal sphere. A mathematically perfect sphere with mysterious properties, but still – it’s no face-hugger. 

There are elements of Solaris here as well; the scientist’s interactions with alien forces result in strange phenomena, with heavy emphasis on the power of the mind. But it’s not quite as personal as Solaris, and not as horrifying as Event Horizon, which had many similar concepts.

Yet, while never hitting the highs or lows of many of its influences, there’s something quite compelling in its own right about how Levinson has pulled these elements together under the framework of Crichton’s novel. It’s almost worth watching just to see a sci-fi film where the director is taking the whole thing seriously – a rare event that’s always a treat.