There’s something out there. It’s big. It’s heavy. And it’s very, very scary, since it’s got the power to drain even Hollywood’s most exciting movie stars of their essential personalities, leaving husks of actors mouthing dialogue such as “We’re all gonna die down here, ya know?” and “We are definitely not alone.” What is it that puts the peerless Samuel L. Jackson to sleep, literally, through most of the action? That turns the always fascinating Sharon Stone into a girl who cries eek? And that has Dustin Hoffman hiccuping Ohhhh, God in a delivery cribbed from Rain Man?

It’s…Sphere (Warner Bros.), based on a decade-old science-fiction novel by Michael Crichton and directed by Barry Levinson, from a screenplay by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio. And, by God, the thing must have been touched by aliens: What other explanation is there for how such an assemblage of talent, such an infusion of money, could be defeated by a gigantic otherworldly spacecraft, plopped a thousand feet under the sea like the world’s biggest ball of yellowy aluminum foil?

This golden globe sits on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, where it has remained untouched for nearly 300 years. And it falls to a government team to study the marvel: There’s Harry the laid-back mathematician (Jackson); Beth the high-strung biochemist (Stone); Ted the neurotically competitive astrophysicist (Liev Schreiber); and Norman the empathetic Jewish psychologist. Okay, so he’s not officially Jewish; he’s only Hoffman, who arrives at the floating habitat and immediately announces, noodgey and menschlike, “I’d like to call my family.” You do the math.

These particular scientists have come together because (we are informed with a waggish Wag the Dog wink), way back in the as-if-anything-will-get-done Bush administration, Norman wrote a paper hypothetically suggesting this cast of friends and colleagues for an alien-encounter team. Had he actually put any faith in the possibility, he would never have included, say, Beth, who was a former student of his the way Monica Lewinsky is a former presidential intern. (By the way, would a woman as alluring as Beth once have suffered a psychotic breakdown just because she was spurned by a married man as unhunky as Norman? Only in your macho dreams, pals.) Still, here they all are, ever so many leagues under the sea, cut off from civilization above and lured by a strange object below that somehow, inexplicably, pulses with a seductive intelligence, beckoning the human entities — like the biblical forbidden Tree of Knowledge, like the mythical Pandora’s Box — to enter.

As in the old tales, once they do, pandemonium follows. And so do sabotage, accidents, giant snakes, bad moods, and the presence of an extraterrestrial life force that communicates via computer, sometimes calls itself Jerry, and makes 2001‘s HAL sound like a Rhodes scholar. According to Crichton and Levinson, there is nothing more alien than that which is buried deep within our own subconscious. Indeed, Norman is so moved by this revelation, he makes conciliatory 12-step talk with Beth, telling her “I was very inappropriate with you, and I’m sorry.” So much for Freudian profundity.

Levinson has been quoted as saying that he had long been looking for a science-fiction project, and you can see where the group-therapy aspect of Sphere vibrates sympathetically with his sensibilities: Every time there’s a little joke, a bit of schmoozing, a small burp of human interaction, the director of Rain Man, of Crichton’s Disclosure, of Wag the Dog, comes alive. (Wag was famously made on the fly, during Sphere downtime.) But the hushed mystery of undersea sci-fi eludes him. The sincere awe required to communicate the implications of something that humans just can’t grasp is not his thing. (That was the very awe Robert Zemeckis delivered so bravely in Contact.) Clomping around on the sea floor in massive underwater suits, their faces eerily illuminated in dramatically styled helmets, Hoffman and Stone don’t register fear or rapture or vulnerability: They’re lit to communicate “Hey, how’s my lighting?!”

Stripped of the pleasures of terror, flattened of grandeur (with a tacked-on coda that fairly groans with storytelling defeat), the movie sinks from the weight of its own heavyhandedness. This Sphere isn’t science fiction, or even psychological fiction. It’s a matzo ball. Norman’s mother knows what I mean. D

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