Sphere is a 1987 novel by Michael Crichton, which was given a 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 story takes place in The '80s, with the discovery of a derelict spacecraft on the floor of the southern Pacific Ocean. The thickness of coral growth on the spaceship suggests that it has been there for at least three hundred years. For obvious reasons, 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 military personnel to investigate further. They are:
- Dr. Harry Adams (Jackson), a brilliant mathematician.
- Captain Harold Barnes (Peter Coyote), the mission's nominal leader, assigned to represent the Navy's interests.
- Jane Edmunds (Marga Gomez), a navy engineer, assigned to handle monitor duty.
- Alice "Teeny" Fletcher (Queen Latifah), another navy engineer.
- Dr. Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber), an astrophysicist.
- Dr. Norman Goodman (Hoffman), a psychologist.
- Dr. Elizabeth "Beth" Halperin ("Halpern" in the novel: see Adaptation Name Change) (Stone), a marine biologist.
The first thing the team establishes is that this ship is not alien but human-made. More specifically, American-made. The ship has somehow time-traveled from the future, with the last entry in the log being dated 06/21/43. Its mission was to use black holes to travel through interstellar space, gathering objects of possible interest to Earth. However, the ship "overshot" its return trip via a black hole, ending up in Earth's past. Despite this, its mission was not a failure, as its cargo hold contains "something alien" — a large, perfect sphere 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 bizarre 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?
Not to be confused with the Japanese Pop group.
Tropes found in either the novel or the film include:
- Adaptational Angst Upgrade: Amongst other changes on the film, Beth obtains some additional hostility with Norman because on this version of the story it appears (but it's not detailed much) that Norman had a tryst with her when she was his patient. Nothing of the sort occurs in the book.
- Adaptation Name Change: Minor example: Beth Halpern's last name is change to Halperin on the film.
- Norman Johnson in the novel to Norman Goodman in the film.
- Aliens in Cardiff: Contact with an alien artifact (and the human ship that is so advanced that was initially believed to be alien) smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This trope is discussed extensively in the book as part of the "Project ULF" briefing, and explained that 1) alien intelligences have to be assumed to be so alien that they may not care to land on a major city, 2) alien biologies are so different from humanity that they would go to a place that fits them better (which is then argued that Earth is covered with oceans so extensively that it makes more statistical sense for first contact to occur on water) and 3) assuming that aliens will do something like, say, land on Washington D.C. because it's what aliens do in movies, is just using a very erroneous (and maybe even dangerous) basis for planning.
- Alone with the Psycho: Towards the end of the book, Beth begins to act more and more irrational. Norman attributes this to the stress of the squid attacks and the anxiety of waiting for rescue. It's only when she plants explosives around the spacecraft and the habitat that he realizes she's snapped as a result of her entering the sphere. She accuses him of entering the sphere, trying to sedate and later asphyxiate him to prevent his fears from killing her, when in reality she's the nutty one. And she nearly gets them all killed when, in the middle of her Heroic BSoD at the very end, she thinks of killing herself and her subconscious arms the explosives, and she also fights against Norman as he tries to get everybody out.
- Amazonian Beauty: In the novel, Dr. Beth Halpern happens to be an attractive weightlifter. One of the other characters describes 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.
- Arc Words: "We are all tired".
- Armor-Piercing Question: "What is his real name?", asked by Barnes repeatedly (because even if belligerent and paranoid-sounding, he has a point in the fact that it's odd that the alien that has been without contact with other intelligent beings for hundreds of years wants to be referred to as "Jerry"), which for various reasons the rest of the cast respond to in a highly defensive fashion. The answer is eventually revealed (and the name is actually Harry) but Barnes is having a nasty case of dead by the time it happens.
- Artistic License Biology: In-Universe. The squids and jellyfish that appear around the Habitat are completely impossible, biology-wise (like all of them lacking reproductory organs). Turns out that they were made manifest from the fears of those who entered the sphere (Harry because of his immense fear to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Norman because of a bad experience when he was a boy with a jellyfish.)
- 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 anomaly. 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 note . 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.
- Black Dude Dies First: Queen Latifah's dispatcher is the first character to die.
- Blank Book: The copy of 20,000 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 environment for a week.
- Composite Character: In the novel, the Habitat is staffed by four female Navy sailors, who get picked off one by one as the story progresses. For the movie, they were amalgamated into Queen Latifah's Fletcher character, who is the first to die to a flock of jellyfish.
- Cryptic Conversation: Subverted. When Norman enters the sphere, the voice inside at first explain the Power to him via riddles only for Norman, who is exhausted, to ask for a plain and simple explanation, which he is promptly given.
- Dirty Coward: Averted with Tina Chan. Norman surmises that she abandoned Barnes during their fight with the giant squid, but he doesn't blame her one bit. One because it was Barnes and two, because it was, you know, a giant squid.
- 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.
- Failed a Spot Check: The "hard" 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.
- First Contact Team: One of the objectives of "Project ULF" was the creation of the procedures for making one of these, plus providing the names for it. Part of the reason why Norman is nervous about the Navy's application of the Project material is that he borrowed some of it from famous sci-fi (although he did do some serious research on his own, showcasing the basis of some of his parameters. Most of it was the testing of various groups under stressful conditions, where many of them broke down almost immediately).
- Floating Head Syndrome: The film poster is an example.
- Gas Leak Cover-Up: Norman is told he's needed to counsel survivors of a plane crash. When he starts bitching that time is tantamount to dealing with Survivor Guilt, the true story comes out.
- Gender Bender: Of corpses.
- Genre Shift: The novel starts out as a technothriller, becomes a horror story once the giant squid shows up, and ends as a psychological thriller. Props to Crichton as these shifts happen fairly seamlessly.
- 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."
- Half the Man He Used to Be: In the film, Barnes is killed when he gets bisected at the waist by an automatic door.
- 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 Jerkass 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 Sphere is no exception. In both the novel and film it appears briefly before the team puts on "voice regulators" that lower the pitches of their voices.
- Heroic RRoD: Beth suffers one when she realizes that she did indeed enter the Sphere.
- Hot Scientist: Dr. Elizabeth "Beth" Halperin, though she becomes more so over time. Reality warping at work.
- Humans Are Insects: When a character suggests that the sphere might have been sent as a test that the crew all failed, it's countered that it's entirely likely that it was made without humans in mind at all and the side effects it has on them is entirely coincidental, like how a creature that gets electrocuted by our communications equipment might consider it some kind of test that the creature had failed.
- 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.
- Inferiority Superiority Complex: Many of the characters have it: Ted is distressed about not having made any ground-breaking discoveries before he reaches thirty (he believes that if he doesn't does by then, he will become too "over the hill" to be important on his field) and sees being part of the expedition as his great chance; Harry is a mathematical genius raised in the ghetto and absolutely loves being in the right (especially when he comes out of the sphere and his attitude becomes, in Norman's words, "manic"); Beth is a woman scientist and a marine biologist at that (a "double threat" of people overlooking her capabilities) and so is willing to be the one with the power (any power-sexual superiority, physical superiority, being the one with the answers, Reality Warper powers...) no matter the cost; Norman himself is particularly miffed that none of the other characters see his skill set as a psychologist to be of any help; and Barnes not quite unsubtly implied to have been assigned to Project ULF and managing the first contact as a Reassignment To Antarctica and wishes for the mission to succeed so his superiors will see his worth.
- Ice-Cream Koan: Many. Beth even Lampshades that Jerry is channeling Deepak Chopra. She also 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 in the movie. Averted in the novel, where Norman notes that the names stenciled on the helmets are the only way to tell each other apart.
- Inscrutable Aliens: The titular Sphere. All that the main characters 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 ultimately a joke), enjoys the house that the report paid for, and is 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.
- Jerkass: Barnes, who repeatedly lies to the team before they descend, sends Norman down even though he's beyond the age limit for deep sea habitation, and is only interested in the spacecraft for its potential as a weapon. He also possibly lies to his superiors to keep the team from returning to the surface, though, considering the Mind Screw elements began coming into play at the same time, it's possible he didn't. He also, rightly, calls out Beth for pressing buttons on the ship without warning anyone beforehand or really knowing what they'll do.
- 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 main characters 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.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In the novel, when Norman enters the Sphere, a voice explains the Power to him and it's left ambiguous as to whether it was the Sphere speaking to him or his own consciousness. Or both.
- Missing Reflection: One of the most unsettling things about the Sphere is that it reflects everything around it except people.
- Murder by Inaction: Almost. After entering the sphere and acquiring the Power, Norman decides to abandon Harry and Beth by taking the rescue sub to the surface without them. It's only when he realizes that he's manifesting his own worst fear, the fear that he doesn't actually give a fuck about anyone besides himself, that he turns back.
- My God, You Are Serious: In the novel, Norman is shocked that Barnes is took ULF seriously since Norman himself thought the project was a joke.
- Never Found the Body: In the book, Barnes and Fletcher. Barnes never returns from his fight with the giant squid and Fletcher disappears during another squid attack on the habitat. All they find of hers is a single shoe near a blood splatter.
- Never My Fault: A pattern for Beth. She feels marginalized and powerless, so she struggles to hold on to whatever power she can get. Part of the problem, though, is the genuine mistakes she makes but refuses to acknowledge. For example, she talks about an assignment she had once where she got what she believes is an unfair evaluation, choosing to call the instructor ignorant rather than admit the work she turned in might have had some very basic flaws.note
- Non-Answer: When Barnes tells Norman that his authorship of a paper made him tantamount to being a part of the mission, Norman retorts that his paper was about First Contact. Barnes simply gives a wry smile and tells Norman to come with him.
- 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.
- Not of This Earth: A sample of the hull of a supposed alien ship is analyzed and found to be made of common elements, but they've been worked into a composite form that nobody yet knows how to duplicate.
- Ocean Punk: Almost the whole story occurs on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, an important part of the Project ULF report was the Lampshade Hanging that people assume (because of pop culture) that aliens that visit will automatically aim for someplace on land (like Washington D.C., if not elsewhere) when the ocean-vs.-land disposition on Earth makes it more possible that they will land on water (and may be even more suited to live on water) and there are many mentions in passing about how the conditions of the extreme depth are demanding to both human and machine (and even to something as simple as cooking).
- 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.
- Prescience by Analysis: Immediately after the team discovers the Sphere and the fact that the spacecraft is of human origin from the future, Harry concludes that the entire team is going to die because the crashed ship is proof that its future occupants had no foreknowledge of the Sphere or time travel — thus the team must not have survived to warn anyone about it, so no record of it exists to inform future events.
- 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?
- Put on a Bus: Arthur Levine, a member of the mission in the book, drops out before the start and is not mentioned again.
- Ragnarök Proofing: For a spaceship that's been underwater for 300 years, it's still pretty sturdy. There's 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, this causes all sorts of havoc when people get it who are deathly afraid of giant squids, and so keep thinking about them. Interestingly, the only way to open the sphere to get inside it is to visualize it opening.
- Reality Warping Is Not a Toy: Once they gain reality warping powers, Norman, 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 except for a second of Beth giving the camera a Kubrick Stare, but it doesn't provides anything else.
- 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.
- Riddle for the Ages: The characters speculate but the origins, capabilities, and purpose of the Sphere are never discovered. Harry doesn't think the effects it has on them are even deliberate.
- 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.
- Space Isolation Horror: The "underwater" sub-division of the trope. Part of the reason why the whole cast struggles to keep it together psychologically lies in the fact that they are stuck in a claustrophobic environment at the bottom of the ocean right as a hurricane is passing over them (and will do so for days), with absolutely no way to contact the outside world. It's made pretty clear that if something bad enough happens, they will all just die and nobody will bother to try to look for the bodies.
- 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.
- Tentacled Terror: "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 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and in-story is because the movie scared Harry as a kid.
- There Are No Therapists: Defied. Norman specifically included having a psychologist on the ULF team to avoid the dangerous consequences of this trope. It comes back to bite him in the ass when the Navy selects him to be said psychologist.
- Took a Level in Badass: Norman does this over the course of the book. Becomes something a Brick Joke when, after earlier in the novel he feels inadequate next to military man Hal Barnes, Norman manages to cripple the giant squid by blowing off one of its tentacles while Barnes was unceremoniously killed offscreen by it.
- 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. 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 used 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".
- Book only:Jerry: STOP CALLING ME JERRY. THAT IS NOT MY NAME.
''The cypher is recalculated to produce "HELLO. MY NAME IS HARRY."
Beth: Your full name is Norman Harrison Johnson.
- Book only:
- Wham Shot: The "aliens" enjoy Blue Diamond almonds. And have a waste receptacle that is labeled "Trash / Basura".
- What the Hell, Hero?: Ted is astonished when everyone decides the mission is over because the ship isn't truly extra-terrestrial, "just" an American / Japanese spaceship from the future. Ted, who always believed that alien life existed but was skeptical of time travel, felt that the ship was now an even greater discovery.
- Willfully Weak: The surviving characters will themselves into simply forgetting their Reality Warper 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.
- Wrench Wench: Both Edmunds and Fletcher at first, with Beth becoming one and keeping The Habitat working when the other two women are killed. Beth explains that the Navy equipment is either made to be easy to repair or extensively labeled with instructions (or with manuals at hand or easily accessible on the Habitat's computer), so it's not impossible for her to improvise this role.
- In the book, Barnes explains that the Navy component of his handpicked team are women because, based on research, ideally all submariners should be women. They are usually physically smaller, work better in groups, and consume fewer resources. But just try to make the Navy implement that...
- You Are Not Ready: A depressing thought to Norman.Beth: 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.