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Site created 12/15/97.


review updated: 7/29/98



Sphere
Special Edition - 1998 (1998) - Warner Bros.

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: C+
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): A-/A+/A
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.

Specs and Features

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

Review

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 special effects.

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.

Bottom line

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.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com




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