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Sphere

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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.

No matter, if the story holds our attention. At first it does. As long as we're in suspense, we're involved, because we anticipate great things. But “Sphere” is one of those movies where the end titles should be Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?” The more the plot reveals, the more we realize how little there is to reveal, until finally the movie disintegrates into flaccid scenes where the surviving characters sit around talking about their puzzlements.

I have been careful to protect most of the film's secrets. I can be excused, I suppose, for revealing that what they find inside the spacecraft is, yes, a sphere. Where does this sphere come from? Who or what made it? How does it function? I am content to let it remain a mystery, so long as it entertains me, but after a promising start (it generates a “2001-style” hurtle through space and time) it just sits there, glowing and glowering, while the humans deal with the dangers of undersea life.

Hoffman, Jackson, Stone: These are good actors. How good is illustrated by how much they do with the flat, unyielding material. The last 20 minutes of the film are a slog through circular explanations and speculations that would have capsized lesser actors. They give it a good try, with dialogue that sounds either like characters analyzing the situation, or actors trying to figure out the plot.

“Sphere” feels rushed. The screenplay uses lots of talk to conceal the fact that the story has never been grappled with. The effects and the sets are pitched at the level of made-for-TV fare. The only excellence is in the acting, and even then the screenplay puts the characters through so many U-turns that dramatic momentum is impossible.

There are ideas sloshing around somewhere in the rising waters aboard the undersea habitat. The best one is an old science-fiction standby: Are humans mature enough to handle the secrets of the universe? Or are we but an infant species, whose fears and phobias prevent us from embracing the big picture? The last scenes are supposed to be a solemn confrontation of these questions, but they're punctuated by a special-effects shot so puny and underwhelming that the spell is broken.

That's all, folks. Put your hands together for Miss Peggy Lee.

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