American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Michael Crichton is the science-fiction author that people read if they think they're too good for “regular” science fiction. Too bad. What they get in the film version of “Sphere,” directed by Barry Levinson, is a watered-down take on the sci-fi classic Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem, which was made into an immeasurably better film by Andrei Tarkovsky.
The underlying idea is the same: Humans come in contact with an extraterrestrial presence that makes their fears seem real. The earlier novel and film challenged our ideas about human consciousness. “Sphere” functions more like a whodunit in which the plot's hot potato is tossed from character to character.
As the movie opens, an expert team is brought to the middle of the Pacific, where an amazing thing has been found on the ocean floor: a giant spacecraft, apparently buried for nearly 300 years, that still emits a distant hum--suggesting it is intact and may harbor life. The members of the team: a psychologist (Dustin Hoffman), a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson), a biochemist (Sharon Stone) and an astrophysicist (Liev Schreiber). In command of a Navy “habitat” on the ocean floor, next to the ship, is Peter Coyote. The habitat's small crew includes radio operator Queen Latifah, from “Set It Off,” who is on hand to illustrate Hollywood's immutable law that the first character to die is always the African American.
The descent to the ocean floor, accompanied by much talk about depressurization, will be a disappointment to anyone who remembers the suspense in similar scenes in James Cameron's “Abyss.” And the introduction of the spacecraft is also a disappointment: Instead of the awe-inspiring first glimpses we remember from “Close Encounters” or even “Independence Day,” it's a throwaway. No wonder. The ocean-floor special effects are less than sensational, and the exteriors of the descent craft and the spacecraft are all too obviously models.