"[A] bunch of scientists find an alien spacecraft on the seabed and go inside it, and sure enough, there's a bloody great big sphere in there. "Let's call this the orb," one of them suggests, but he's soon shouted down."Sphere
is the name shared by a 1987 novel by Michael Crichton
and its 1998 film adaptation. Both works combine elements of two genres: Science Fiction
and Psychological Thriller
. The film was directed by Barry Levinson
, previously known for such films as Disclosure
and Wag The Dog
. The main stars were Dustin Hoffman
, Sharon Stone
, and Samuel L. Jackson
The film begins with the discovery of a spacecraft deep within the southern Pacific Ocean. The thickness of coral growth on the spaceship suggests that it has been there for almost three hundred years. The United States Navy believes the spacecraft is alien in nature, sets up an underwater research facility at the site, and assigns a group of scientists and naval personnel to investigate further. They are:
- Dr. Harry Adams (Jackson). A mathematician.
- Captain Harold Barnes (Peter Coyote). Assigned to represent the Navy's interests and nominally in charge of the mission.
- Jane Edmunds (Marga Gomez). A navy engineer, assigned to handle monitor duty.
- Alice "Teeny" Fletcher (Queen Latifah). A navy engineer.
- Dr. Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber). An astrophysicist.
- Dr. Norman Goodman. (Hoffman). A psychologist.
- Dr. Elizabeth "Beth" Halperin (Stone). A marine biologist.
The first thing the team establishes is that this ship is not alien but man-made. More specifically, American. But from a different century. The ship seems to have somehow time-traveled from the future, the last entry in the log being dated 06/21/43. It had apparently been on a mission to gather objects from around the galaxy to bring back to Earth for study. One of these objects is a large, perfect sphere in the cargo hold that eerily hovers above the ground and has no obvious function.
Soon the crew are contacted by a mysterious entity calling itself "Jerry," which they assume to be an alien and related somehow to the mysterious sphere. Before much more can be learned, a powerful typhoon suddenly arrives, trapping all below until it blows over. Within the following days, things go horribly wrong. Strange sea creatures menace the station, crew members die in a series of tragic incidents and communications from "Jerry" have inexplicably become irrational and hostile. As the situation grows worse, the surviving team members make a shocking revelation as to the true nature of both "Jerry" and the sphere, but has it come too late to help them escape a living nightmare?
The film was a box office flop. It earned 37 million in the U.S and underperformed elsewhere, failing to even cover its budget. It ranked 58th for the year. Fans of Crichton noted many differences with the source novel, including the character's histories and personalities, while critics dismissed the rushed-production appearance and derivative plot; similarities were noted with Forbidden Planet
, certain episodes of Star Trek
, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Not to be confused with the Japanese Pop group
Tropes found in either the novel or the film include:
- Amazonian Beauty: In the novel, Dr. Beth Halpern (sic) happens to be a very attractive weightlifter. One of the other characters described her as "Mother Nature with muscles."
- Applied Phlebotinum: Vocal regulators so that the audience isn't forced to listen to Munchkin talk the entire film.
- Because Destiny Says So: Harry believes that he and his colleagues are doomed to die because the crashed spaceship's computer logs indicate exactly when and why it crashed, but also that it was an unknown anomoly. Thus, Harry argues, if they make it back to the surface and report what they've learned, the ship won't crash because the mistake in the "future" will never happen. Since it still crashed, they must all have died in the "past." In the end, they Take a Third Option by choosing to use the Sphere's power to erase their memories of what happened, keeping themselves alive while preserving the integrity of the timeline.
- Black and Nerdy: Dr. Harry Adams.
- The Black Dudette Dies First: Played straight then averted. Queen Latifah's dispatcher is the first character to die, but Harry, the lone black character other than her, lives to the end.
- Blank Book: The copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea after a certain page, because Harry hasn't read any further.
- Clap Your Hands If You Believe: What the Sphere gives people the power to do. It even works if the person is not aware they have this power, resulting in a lot of nightmares made real.
- Closed Circle: A typhoon makes it impossible to leave the underwater enviroment for a week.
- Deadpan Snarker: Barnes, but then he's played by Peter Coyote.
- Drinking On Duty: In the novel, Petty Officer Fletcher is described as having a noticeable odor of alcohol on her breath during the first squid attack.
- Everything's Squishier with Cephalopods: "Jerry" summons a swarm of impossible squids, and later a giant squid to attack the undersea station. The squid is a homage to the one in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and in-story is because the movie scared Harry as a kid.
- Failed a Spot Check: The scientists are so in awe of the alien sphere that Norman the psychologist has to point out its one, truly disturbing feature: it reflects its surroundings but not people.
- First Contact Math: In the novel, this is the way Harry manages to first make meaningful contact with the mysterious alien presence.
- Four-Temperament Ensemble: Norman is phlegmatic, Beth is choleric, Harry is melancholic, and Ted is sanguine.
- Gender Bender: Of corpses.
- Ghost Ship: A deserted spacecraft, a mysterious sphere which grants uncontrollable psychic powers, and several monsters.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Ted and Harry, which is mostly one-sided on Ted's part. Harry quietly tells Norman that he forgives him for everything but allowing Ted to be on the mission. "He's a pain in the ass."
- Hand Wave: The movie gets silly voices created by the helium atmosphere out of the way after a brief comic relief scene by having everyone don "voice regulators".
- Hard on Soft Science: Discussed and subverted in the novel. One of the Jerk Ass physicists asks what somebody from such a useless field as psychology is doing on the mission. Norman, the psychologist protagonist, points out what terrible people skills the average physicist has. It turns out the psychologist is the only one mentally stable enough to handle the nigh-omnipotence the titular sphere gives without killing everyone.
- Helium Speech: This trope is used often in works set deep underwater and is played straight in the novel. Appears only briefly in the film.
- Heroic RROD: Beth suffers one when she realizes that she did indeed enter the Sphere.
- Hot Scientist: Dr. Elizabeth "Beth" Halperin, though she doesn't start off that way. Reality warping at work.
- I Always Wanted to Say That: Ted, on "We Come In Peace".
- I'll Kill You!: In the novel, Norman is the first to figure out "Jerry's secret." He then attempts to taunt Jerry. Suffice it to say, Jerry does not appreciate this.
- Ice-Cream Koan: Many. Beth even Lampshades that Jerry is channeling Deepak Chopra. Beth herself comments that the Zen masters would say that the Sphere was a ball that wanted to be caught.
- Ignored Expert: In a team full of Worm Guys, Norman is this. Some of the other members question why a psychologist would be needed on a first-contact team, and eventually fatigue, a claustrophobic environment and the strangeness of the Sphere and what may be within make everybody's Fatal Flaws come roaring out, with only Norman noticing the first warning signs.
- Inertial Dampening: The spaceship discovered at the bottom of the ocean features water-filled chair systems to help counteract high g-forces.
- In Space Everyone Can See Your Face: Played straight.
- Inscrutable Aliens: The titular Sphere. All that the protagonists are sure of is that it's alien. The reasons for its creation, the reasons why it can bestow the abilities it can, or even whether it's alive or not, are never answered.
- Insufferable Genius:
- Harry. Growing up a math nerd in the ghetto made Harry very bitter, so he has a tendency to figure out everything before everyone else does, and mock everyone else's ideas.
- Harry himself considers Ted this, telling Norman half-kiddingly that he doesn't forgive him for bringing Ted along, calling him a "pain in the ass."
- I Was Young and Needed the Money: Almost quoted, word by word, as the reason Norman accepted the request to write "Project ULF"—a research report regarding the potential for first contact and the creation of a proper contact team plus the potential psychological impact and how it would influence everything. Norman keeps thinking of the project as "a joke" (which he did in professional earnest, but still), enjoys the house that the report paid, and is pretty much near-horrified when he finds out that the Navy has been using it as gospel since they found the ship.
- Japan Takes Over the World: The novel heavily implies a very heavy influence between the West and Japan in the time-lost spacecraft's own prior time line, which would be the future for the world at present in the book. Crichton would more fully explore this theme in his novel Rising Sun.
- Just Ignore It: At the end of both the novel and the film, in order to get rid of the destructive abilities the namesake Sphere had given them, the protagonists agree to use their power to make themselves forget about the Sphere and all of their activities involving it. In the original novel, at least, this works because the Sphere, by its own admission, didn't grant them these abilities — they already had them, as do all human beings, but it took the Sphere to alter their awareness so they could use them. Yeah, it's kind of a weird book.
- The Killer In Me: Not even Harry is aware that "Jerry" is an aspect of him. The monsters who kill the others are all effectively "Monsters from the Id." One of the main reasons so many people find this work reminiscent of Forbidden Planet.
- Noodle Incident: In the movie much is made about Norman having taken advantage of Beth when she was his patient. This event is never mentioned in the book.
- Parrot Exposition: In the novel, Norman uses this as a psychological trick. Its purpose is to get him more info without requiring him to put much in. His conversation partner catches on soon enough.
- Phlebotinum Analogy: In the novel, Ted explains gravity and black holes to Norman by using fruit on a table.
- Product Placement: Blue Diamond nuts apparently will still be around in the next century.
- Prophecy Twist: Trying to come up with one is a plot point, how do you plan an escape when the continued existence of a crashed ship is proof that you're going to fail?
- Ragnarok-Proofing: For a spaceship that's been underwater for 300 years, it's still pretty sturdy. There even enough power left to run the computers and lights. This could be justified, having been apparently built of advanced alloys by its future American and Japanese creators.
- Reality Warper: The Sphere, which causes people who go into it to gain this power. Of course, causes all sorts of havoc when people get it who are deathly afraid of giant squid, and so keep thinking about them. Interestingly, the only way to open the sphere up to get inside it is to visualize it opening.
- Reality Warping Is Not a Toy: Once they gain reality warping powers, Normal, Beth, and Harry all lack the mental discipline to properly control them, which isn't helped by the fact that they don't even realize they possess the powers at first. Even as they start to get a handle on it, they decide they aren't responsible enough to keep their powers and use said power to erase their memories and the power itself.
- Reset Button: Used in the film. In the novel it is attempted but the results are unclear. The book's ending is left ambiguous enough that one can infer that the Reset Button attempt only made things worse. The line at the very end where Norman says Beth is looking "lovely" could mean that she, with her inferiority complex and her hunger for power, deliberately held on to her abilities while the others forgot them — or it could imply that while they erased their memories of ever having had these powers, they failed to erase their ability to use them. The Film of the Book lacks this Karmic Twist Ending.
- Rewind, Replay, Repeat: The book version of the story has a minor running sub-plot of Beth watching a particular part of a surveillance video where she and one of the Navy women are talking again and again. This is thought of at first as a sign of mental fatigue by protagonist Norman Johnson (because this conversation was one of the last times that said woman was seen alive, and everybody's running on empty at this point in time). In reality, Beth keeps watching the video again and again in order to determine that the titular Sphere, which was on a monitor on the background and opens at one point of the conversation, can be opened if you think about it hard enough because it runs on Clap Your Hands If You Believe.
- Secret Test of Character: Discussed by Beth, Norman, and Harry. Norman theorizes that the Sphere is one of these, sent by an alien intelligence to determine humanity's suitability for contact — which they failed miserably. Harry disagrees, pointing out that that it's an alien device with an alien purpose, which is far more likely to have nothing whatsoever to do with the purpose of any race save its creators, and that the Sphere gives humans Reality Warper powers could be completely accidental. The analogy he uses is some kind of intelligent space-borne bacteria happening upon a human satellite and exploring it until it finds something that affects them in odd ways and ultimately kills many of them.
Norman: But why would someone build such a machine?
Harry: That's the same question an intelligent bacterium would ask about a communications satellite: "Why would anyone build such a thing?”
- Shaggy Dog Story: The main characters are investigating a most-likely alien ship, that landed on the bottom of the ocean. Inside they find a perfect sphere with strange markings on it, and after they've entered the Sphere, they can do stuff with the power of their minds! Which results in the underwater research facility being attacked by among other things, a giant squid. All but three of them die and at the end they figure out what's happening.
When they are finally rescued, they decide that the power to do anything with just your thoughts is too dangerous, so they decide to forget everything that's happened, explain the deaths of everyone by a leak or something and just by thinking this, it becomes reality. So basically, everything that happened in the entire book has become irrelevant in the last paragraph or so. Or was it? There is the implication that Beth didn't actually give up the power after all.
- Sinister Geometry: The Sphere is a great example. It is enigmatic and scary by virtue of being so simple and featureless. It's nature is what you project on to it, which is perfect for the theme of the film. One character is very unnerved as he observes that, aside from the random pattern of grooves that criss-cross it, the rest of the surface seems to be perfectly spherical. Not only that:
Norman: What worries me is that it's reflecting everything but us. I hate to be the one non-scientist who picks this up, guys.
- Spheroid Dropship: The mysterious sphere is revealed to be able of autonomous flight at the finale.
- Starfish Aliens: The sphere itself, if it is indeed a living creature.
- Underwater Base: The research base the team uses is one of these. Called "the Habitat."
- Victory Guided Amnesia: Used in both the novel and the film by the final survivors. Doubles as a Shoot the Shaggy Dog. Though the ending of the novel is rather ambiguous. Beth seems to be more in control of her manifestations and may have decided to keep her power and use it to make the others forget. But it is hard to tell exactly what is going on because of the fact that the narrator gets/claims amnesia.
- Wham Line:
Norman Johnson: What happens when Jerry gets mad?
Jerry: I WILL KILL YOU ALL.
Norman Johnson: (regarding the "sphere" number cypher) Wait a minute. That number doesn't stands for "J".
- What the Hell, Hero?: Ted is astonished when everyone decides the mission is over because the ship isn't extra-terrestrial. "Just" an American / Japanese spaceship from the future.
- Willfully Weak: The surviving characters will themselves into simply forgetting their Physical God status, thus losing it, on the off chance they go mad with power. See Reset Button for the ambiguous exception.
- The Worm Guy: Norman, a psychologist carried off by the military to study aliens. To a lesser extent the other scientists. Crichton loved this trope and it features in several of his novels.
- You Are Not Ready: A depressing thought to Norman.
What's the matter, Norman? Norman:
It's a little hard to let go of. Something that could've been... this gift? The power to make your dreams come true. We're given the greatest gift in the history of mankind. We're given this magic ball. And it says "Imagine what you will and you can have it." That's an extraordinary gift, but we're so primitive we... we manifested the worst in us, because what we have inside us... is what we have inside of us, instead of the best of us. What does that say? Harry:
We weren't ready, Norman. Norman: We have what's called an imagination. I mean, look what we're capable of. We can... (sighs) We're not ready.
- You Can't Fight Fate: Harry invokes this. Because the ship encounters an "unknown event", it means no one on the ship of the future knew what was going to happen. Therefore, he reasons, they all die because that's the only way it could be an "unknown event". This leads to a haunting question delivered perfectly by Jackson with no irony whatsoever.
Harry: ... Are you afraid of dying, Norman?
- Your Mind Makes It Real: Both the novel and the film, a device bestows this power on unwitting researchers sent to inspect a seemingly alien ship find on the ocean floor. Half are killed by nightmares emanating from themselves or someone else.