Site created 12/15/97.
- 1998 (1998) - Warner Bros.
review by Todd Doogan,
special to The Digital Bits
Too many times great ideas are burdened by poor choices by talented
actors and directors -- best illustrated here in Sphere.
If you want a good version of the themes behind Sphere,
check out Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovksy's 1971 film Solaris.
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras):
Great supplemental materials elevate this disc to being a great
learning tool, outside of being a simple form of entertainment.
Overall Rating: B
Even with all the great additions, it's still a subpar film. If the
film itself were better, this would be one of the better DVDs
produced thus far.
135 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced,
single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:09:41), Snapper
packaging, documentary: Shaping The
Sphere: The Art Of The Visual Effects Supervisor, audio
commentary by Samuel L. Jackson and Dustin Hoffman, production
notes, cast and crew bios, theatrical trailer, 3 TV spots,
film-themed menus, scene access (43 chapters), languages: English
(DD 5.1) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French and
Spanish, Close Captioned
Deep below the ocean's surface, a sunken ship is discovered. It's
not a cruise ship once occupied by Leo and Kate, nor is it a crashed
airplane with a Presidential Seal emblazoned on it's side. It is in
fact a space craft -- one that according to the coral growth on it's
surface, has been down there for 300 years. And it is safe to assume
an intelligence is on board. A team of four scientists (Dustin
Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone and Liev Schreiber), a
gung-ho military man (Peter Coyote) and two female deep sea soldiers
(Queen Latifah and Marga Gómez) are sent on a mission to find
out if there is in fact a life-force still running around, and if
they can be our friends. What they find is a faceless monster on
board, one that can make their hopes, fears and dreams come to life
-- not without disastrous effects.
If that sounds like a great idea for a sci-fi action fest to you,
you're not alone. Barry Levinson thought so. Levinson has directed
some of the better character driven films ever made, and he brought
his vast talents to Sphere. "A
List" acting talent like Hoffman, Stone and Jackson must have
thought so too, they all starred in it. But all were wrong. When the
film was released in February 1998 it sank like a pebble dropped
into the deep blue sea. What happened? The movie didn't suck, and it
had some pretty good special effects. Hey, it even had Michael
Crichton's name attached, being that it was his novel that served at
the source material. It would seem that even the guy who made
dinosaurs cool again, couldn't get people into theaters for this.
What killed it was simple -- it was just boring.
DVD has the great ability to show the mass public why movies suck.
Like laser disc before it, most of the DVDs coming out have
production notes and commentary tracks. These allow interested
parties to examine the how's and why's of failure and success. Here
is a commentary track that has Dustin Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson
-- two great actors discussing what it was like acting for a special
effects film. Neither had any special effects experience going in,
and I would have to guess, neither will want to again. Hoffman has
virtually nothing to say, the entire track is occupied mainly by
Jackson. Sam expounds on the joy of working with Dustin, on how much
of a glory hog Liev Schreiber was and how hard it was to work with
green screens. Jackson goes into great depth into a sequence in the
film where the scientists discover the "intelligent" life
on the ship. It is a huge gold sphere (thus the name of the film --
duh.). When shooting the scene, Jackson was told it would be a
silver globe. But silver proved to be a difficult special effect to
create by the effects department. So they made it gold. Upon seeing
the finished film, Jackson became a bit frustrated because he was
acting to a silver globe, not a gold one. His performance would have
been totally different if he knew it was going to be gold, he
claims. That to me is incredible information. To know an actor would
put that much thought into a performance that a color would
influence which way it goes is mind blowing. Hoffman's take, one of
the only things he really talks about on the track, is a little more
relaxed. He just stood there and wondered what the damn thing would
end up looking like and let that awe translate to the screen. Both
ways work. But that is what you get in a commentary track like the
one on Sphere -- an actor's
point of view on an often thought about subject: how do actor's act
when there is nothing to act on? The commentary track also let's the
audience in on why the film failed, and I don't think the actors
knew they were even telling it.
Sphere failed because of a
thing called "Art By Committee". When you take a subject
and have a group of artists work on it, it becomes less art and more
of a mess. The actors and Levinson took the screenplay and used it
as a blueprint of where the film was going to go. Each actor
developed their own character secretly, came up with backgrounds and
character subplots together and them improvised most of the dialogue
on set putting everything together. This lead to a great thrilling
story, wonderful characterization, but stilted dialogue. Most actors
can't be Johnny On The Spot when it comes to words. They think and
convey well, but it takes a very talented actor to be able to be
witty enough all the time that they can just make up a well written
film -- especially one that is so sci-fi driven, as is the case with
Sphere. In the audio
commentary we hear from Jackson how most of this went down, and
after knowing the truth it becomes very clear why the film just
didn't flow. Put some wit behind this film, and you would have had a
winner. Take it away, and you get what you have here.
The positive aspect of Sphere
is the special effects. As is the case with Warner DVDs featuring
tight special effects (like Contact)
you get a nice document on how they went down. From concept to
completion, all the major effects are talked about in great detail
by the visual effects supervisor. We get to see drawings, and
computer grids, all illustrating the talent brought into this film.
For a effectshead, buying this disc gives you your money's worth
right there. It's an invaluable tool for people with an interest in
Taking everything else, and putting it aside, you'll find a great
DVD. The transfer is crisp and cool (Kyle Cooper's amazing title
effects look better here than they did projected 40 feet high). The
colors are all nice and crisp, while the blacks stay black with no
noise whatsoever. The sound will thunder your theater. A deep and
cool bass is almost constant throughout the film giving your viewing
area the nice effect of being submerged under the ocean's surface.
You will feel this film.
What you get with Sphere as a
movie is that it's a good idea executed poorly by vastly talented
people. As a DVD, you can stomach it better, because you find out
the reasons why, although they are pretty much unacceptable. A
gorgeous film, a stellar commentary track and a great document on
the special effects make this a must see DVD for people with an
interest to go behind-the scenes on a sci-fi film.