Reviews of Sphere (1987) and related work

Sphere (1987Text)

Michael Crichton (writer).

Read in 2021.

A psychologist mistakenly believes he is called to the site of a plane crash way out in the Pacific Ocean, to aid traumatized survivors.

As usual, Crichton’s prose reads like a treatment for a screenplay, mostly simple dialogue and neatly atomized lectures based on visual metaphors, with a couple of brief author tracts and the usual tricks for tension: Ticking clocks, confinement, violence etc. The techno-thriller underwater setting is good, and in that setting, the writer attempts to merge two classic science fiction motifs: A remake of Forbidden Planet (1956) with the addition of later, more sophisticated speculation about less comprehensible extraterrestrial life. It’s also tinged with horror, including what may be allusions to “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926): A giant “deep green” squid and awakening to an “odd-angled” perspective.

The combination resembles Solaris (1961) but is adapted for a conservative pinkish-beige male US audience. Thus the cast of characters is reduced to three: The white male focalizer who saves the day, the black man who is driven by anxiety over racism, and the woman who is driven by anxiety over sexism and is transformed by the id machine into a sex bomb. This foundation is extraordinarily symptomatic, given that the protagonist is a psychologist, nominally aware of unconscious bias and projection. The symptoms, of course, are those of the US cultural context itself.

The titular sphere resembles the golden sphere of Roadside Picnic (1972), but Sphere’s thesis is very different: Instead of formulating satire or social criticism, Crichton merely buys into the magical thinking of his premise. He suggests that imagination, and especially visualization, is the defining feature of intelligence, which is an even worse worldbuilding idea than mere consciousness. Still, he does pull some good scenes out of the uncontrolled id machine, like when the survivors realize that the fridge full of Pepsi on the space ship is literally a product of their imagination and not a guide to appropriate stock-market investments.

References here: “If Wishes Were Horses” (1993).

fiction text

Sphere (1998Moving picture, 134 minutes)

I’m guessing this got made in such a dumb, star-studded way because of Crichton’s connections and the success of Jurassic Park (1993). Ironically, the book being written like a treatment did not make the adaptation of it any better.

adaptation fiction moving picture