Dustin Hoffman is nobody's idea of an action-adventure star, but his talent seems broad enough to handle every kind of movie that comes his way.
"Sphere" finds him scampering around the ocean floor with Sharon Stone at his side and assorted sea monsters at his heels. While it's not the weightiest role of his career, the screenplay contains enough humor to bring out his witty side, and he handles the horror-flick scenes with as much dignity as the circumstances allow. Stone and Samuel L. Jackson also make reasonably strong showings, with Liev Schreiber and Peter Coyote backing them up.
That's the good news about "Sphere," based on Michael Crichton's amusing tale of a mysterious object that manipulates reality according to the mentalities of the people who poke around it. The bad news is that director Barry Levinson has chosen to highlight the high-tech thrills rather than the all-too-human ironies of Crichton's bestseller, downplaying the sardonic dialogue and wry plot twists that give the novel its gingery flavor.
The result is a run-of-the-mill fantasy, competently produced but disappointingly familiar, from its "Forbidden Planet" premise to the digital-clock countdown near the end.
The most surprising aspect of "Sphere" is that such an everyday entertainment was cooked up by Hoffman and Levinson, who also gave us "Wag the Dog," the season's most spirited political satire - and the most prescient, given the real-life troubles bedeviling the White House in recent weeks. As savvy players of the Hollywood game, they may have regarded the ordinariness of "Sphere" as a safety net that would cushion their fall if "Wag the Dog" proved too controversial for the multiplex market.
Be that as it may, Hoffman and Levinson are too creative for throwaway thrillers like "Sphere" to capture them for long. Here's hoping their next partnership stands on more solid ground than this watery trifle.
* Rated PG-13. Contains science-fiction violence.