We’re doing a combo-pack today so saddle up.
I was raised on a healthy diet of Michael Crichton. Jurassic Park is one of the first times I ever got excited for a film adaptation. I hadn’t read it, the novel containing harsh language that was a no-no for me to be near in the eyes of my family, but I knew it was about an amusement park full of dinosaurs that break loose and bust shit up. That was enough to excite me at five years old, head alight with excitement. Around ten I began hunting down his other novels, only snagging a few here and there when I could convince my parents to let me get them from the library. One of the earliest I purchased for myself was Sphere, a weird little story about scientists trapped underwater and experiencing cool sci-fi stuff.
Sphere tells the story of Norman Johnson, a man once contacted by the American government for a project meant to detail the necessary procedures if humanity ever came into contact with an extraterrestrial life form. He took it as a joke and cobbled it together from conversations with military personnel, a little bit of hard research, and some of the best sci-fi writing he could find. His procedures and team recommendations are taken seriously when the Navy finds a spacecraft at the bottom of the Pacific ocean in 1987 and drags Norman, along with his unfortunately recommended team, 10,000 feet underwater to investigate. Many twists and turns present themselves, but when the group finds a large sphere in the cargo hold that they can’t explain shit starts getting weird.
The novel would go on to be influential for me over every bit of my life. The first time I’d heard of psychology was in the character of Norman Johnson, a researcher studying and treating trauma and studying fear. The studies cited in the book were the first that I read independently and were cited in some of my own papers during the first couple of years of college. Group experiments, research of questionable ethics, introspective storytelling that involved the power of self-actualization in the face of human nature, that was all my jam when I was young and has been a cornerstone in my developing interests through to my adult years and will stick around beyond. Sure, it’s kind of pretentious, but that’s my bag, baby.
It’s not just all the psychological elements, though. It’s the setting. Humanity understands more about our wider solar system than we do our own ocean floors, in part because satellites sent into space aren’t crushed by pressures they are incapable of withstanding. These underwater environments are full of creatures we’re still in the process of discovering, living in total perfect darkness and inhabiting an ecosystem that is completely alien to the surface-dwelling world. Growing up I was highly religious, reading my Bible all the time and such. Michael Crichton’s Sphere toyed with concepts similar to the Leviathan, a sea creature God uses to intimidate (or impress) the character of Job. So many of these things are allegorical, but in the case of mythological creatures like the Leviathan and the Kraken my imagination was sparked by other literature. The first non-Dr.-Suess book I read cover-to-cover was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. I was five when I read this (coinciding closely to my introduction to Crichton/Spielberg with the film Jurassic Park) and it is most likely why I still adore these underwater stories. Crichton theorized about the giant squid in the way Verne did, completely going off of rumors and stories from terrified sailors without having any evidence. I still remember the glee I felt as I watched the Discover Channel show the first photographs of these creatures in 2004. Hell, I was still giddy in 2013 when the first video footage of them was released.
The big thing, though, at least for me, was the aspect of time travel. The novel Sphere (and its adaptation) introduce fairly early that the spacecraft isn’t actually from an alien civilization, instead coming from Earth itself. It’s American, and all the buttons are in English. While this initially disappoints the crew I got excited. One of my other favorite novels growing up was H.G. Wells The Time Machine. Crichton’s novel serves to mash up several of these concepts in way that should feel like a dumpster fire and instead feels like a beautiful charcuterie board. Time travel is still something we can only make guesses about despite there being foundational evidence in tachyon particles and dark matter that suggest its possible existence. It’s a concept that toys with the idea of human evolution, of exploring dimensional reality, and that thoroughly excites me.
The film adaptation of Sphere got a bad rep when it landed in 1998, bombing at the box office and being shredded by critics (it’s still only at 12% on Rotten Tomatoes). Norman’s last name is changed to Goodman (Dustin Hoffman) and the rest of the cast is rounded out by Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber, Queen Latifah, and Huey Lewis in the most random cameo I’ve ever seen. The film itself is played as more of a B-movie in an era where any Crichton book could get made but never taken as seriously as it should have been. Barry Levinson, who also adapted the writer’s novel Disclosure, still took it seriously and worked hard with visual effects artist Jeff Okun to make the film pop onscreen while the cast elevates the scripted material. It’s an A-List cast doing B-List dialogue, but what comes of that is a fun underwater thriller that I rented religiously at the video store between the ages of twelve and…well, whenever video stores stopped being a thing. I only purchased the Blu-Ray a couple of years back and still have yet to explore the commentary track since every time I put it on I just wind up wanting to watch the movie instead.
Oh, and the score by Elliot Goldenthal rips in case you were wondering.
Crichton became a controversial figure later in life, his conspiracy theorist views on climate change and open distaste for his critics placing him in somewhat distasteful light in recent years. I dislike that about the man, but twelve years after his death I reach back instead to just enjoy the aspects of his work I enjoyed. Sphere is undeniably his masterpiece, creating a more interesting block of characters and a more unique setting than anything else he wrote, and I truly hope most of you seek out the book and film. They’re some of my personal favorites and hold up over thirty years after the book’s publication.