Science-fiction thrillers are like children with a secret: They want to hold off revealing what they know for as long as possible. With "Sphere," that reticence has a reason: The more the movie explains itself, the more ordinary it becomes.
As the umpteenth entrant in the We-Are-Not-Alone sweepstakes, "Sphere" feels awfully familiar because it is. The notion of encountering alien civilizations was most recently done in "Contact," using the ocean floor as a staging area is straight out of "The Abyss," and even the film's key plot device is yet another reworking of a scenario that 1956's "Forbidden Planet" pioneered.
Trying to make things fresh, or at least comprehensible, "Sphere" made use of four writers, including Michael Crichton (who wrote the original novel), adapter Kurt Wimmer and screenwriters Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio. Yet the final result still comes off as standard 1950s silliness with an expensive pedigree, where high-caliber actors Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson make the best of lines like "I don't get it," "I don't know what's going on here" and the always popular "Oh my God."
A key element in that pedigree, and part of what attracted the actors, is the presence of director Barry Levinson, currently enjoying deserved success with the more casual "Wag the Dog." Though he's done glossy commercial films before (including the Demi Moore-Michael Douglas version of Crichton's "Disclosure"), Levinson's gift is for the personal and conversational, and having him as the director of this kind of thriller is not always a blessing.
"Sphere" starts with the notion that something big and mysterious is happening in the middle of nowhere, more specifically a miles-from-civilization spot in the Pacific. Once psychologist Norman Goodman (Hoffman) arrives on site, he's greeted by a government operative named Barnes (Peter Coyote) and exposed to a number of surprises.
First, he turns out to know the three other celebrated scientists who have also been helicoptered in, including biochemist (and possible old flame) Beth Halperin (Stone), mathematician Harry Adams (Jackson) and astrophysicist Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber.)
The other surprise is that everyone is here because Goodman, largely as a lark if the script is to be believed, wrote a government paper years ago recommending the group be assembled as a welcome wagon should an alien encounter become a possibility. That time, Barnes says, has arrived.
Submerged deep under the ocean sits an impressive space vehicle with a fuselage half a mile long. Even more intriguing, the ship is covered with close to 300 years worth of coral. How did it get there, what's it been doing underwater for so long, what if anything remains alive inside: that's what our nonplused quartet has to find out from its base in an undersea habitat.
Given this film's title, it will surprise no one that lurking inside the ship is an enormous round object that all but glows in the dark. What it is and what it does are the central "Sphere" mysteries, and those questions are some of the many that, as noted, this film is more inventive at posing than at answering.
It's not just that the puzzle remains to be solved that makes the early parts of "Sphere" more involving. Because Levinson is a director who understands and cares about language, the film's initial exposition is more literate and better acted than usual, with Hoffman and Jackson performing at their standard expert levels and Stone giving one of her better, most restrained performances.
But the creation of tension and suspense, both genre staples even in a psychological thriller, are not the kinds of things that Levinson does really well, and as tempers fray and strange things start to happen underwater, we don't feel the kind of merciless whipsawing that, for instance, Ridley Scott and James Cameron brought to the first two "Alien" films.
The core problem with "Sphere," however, is that despite (or perhaps because of) employing four writers, the script is muddled and unsatisfying, as ponderous on its feet as its protagonists are in their heavy diving suits. If it's true that, as a scientist says about that large sphere, "Perfection is a powerful message," it's one that this film is not in the business of sending.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sci-fi action including some startling images. Times guidelines: bump-in-the-night scare moments and an attack by killer jellyfish.
Dustin Hoffman: Norman Goodman
Sharon Stone: Beth Halperin
Samuel L. Jackson: Harry Adams
Peter Coyote: Barnes
Liev Schreiber: Ted Fielding
Queen Latifah: Fletcher
Marga Gomez: Edmunds
A Baltimore Pictures/Constant C production in association with Punch Productions Inc., released by Warner Bros. Director Barry Levinson. Producers Barry Levinson, Michael Crichton, Andrew Wald. Executive producer Peter Giuliano. Screenplay by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio. Adaptation by Kurt Wimmer. Based on the novel by Michael Crichton. Cinematographer Adam Greenberg. Editor Stu Linder. Costumes Gloria Gresham. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Production design Norman Reynolds. Art directors Mark Mansbridge, Jonathan McKinstry. Set Decorator Anne Kuljian. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.