Time loops and super-powered psychic energy are two hallmarks of science fiction. In 1998, Sphere took both tropes beyond reason. The sci-fi movie made both plots confusing and antithetical to storytelling to boot. And even Sphere isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests, and it’s worth returning to in 2023.

In the 1990s, science fiction films based on books by Michael Crichton were all the rage. None have been as successful as jurassic parkbut many, like congo (1995) and The lost World (1997)tried valiantly. Sphere is by far the weirdest of the bunch, but it’s definitely a better movie than congoand easily better than the Crichton time travel disaster of 2003, Calendar. Sphere is a time travel movie that isn’t really about time travel, and also a movie about alien technology that isn’t about aliens. It’s a mess, but his insights are worth another look.

Sphere features a group of scientists – Drs. Goodman (Dustin Hoffman), Halperin (Sharon Stone), Adams (Samuel L. Jackson) and Fielding (Liev Schreiber) – investigating a mysterious spacecraft at the bottom of the ocean. At various times, this sphere is believed to be of extraterrestrial origin or controlled by humans in the far future. But what’s most puzzling is that an “unknown event,” apparently a black hole, sent the ship and the large, mysterious sphere it contains into the past. A few time travel paradoxes later, and everyone becomes convinced that this mission will kill them all.

But the twists and turns of the time loop aren’t really what’s frustrating Sphere. Instead, borrowing concepts from Solaris, we learn that strange physical manifestations – including jellyfish and aggressive squid – are the result of the sphere bringing Dr. Adams’ fears to life. It is here where Sphere backfired.

For successful sci-fi twists to work, the “logic” of the twist is less important than the likability. The solutions to Sphere The time loop issues are a little tedious, but the thought-based hazard generating sphere is just plain silly. The sphere is essentially Zuul of ghost hunters, and it destroys the drama. If you think of jellyfish, jellyfish will appear and destroy you! Clear your heads!

On February 13, 1998, Sphere was released to largely shrugging reviews. Roger Ebert’s biggest complaint is that the movie ruined its own premise by answering every question. As he wrote“The last 20 minutes of the film are a chore of circular explanations and speculation that would have capsized lesser actors.”

But the problem with Sphere is it not that it explains too much, or that its structure is circular. The plot of the film is not This different from the 1987 book from which it was adapted, and it was generally well received.

Samuel L. Jackson as a shirtless scientist in Sphere.Getty Images/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Instead, the problem is primarily structural. The twists in Sphere are neither good nor bad. His science fiction concepts weren’t particularly new then or now. The film is better than its reputation because it manages to make all of these tropes – from time loops to nightmarish alien technology – somewhat explainable. There’s a laid-back realism that pervades Crichton’s novels, and that vibe is often found in the film adaptations. Sphere seems realistic when the characters explain what’s really going on, but it works better in a book than in a movie.

Because the explanatory scenes are somewhat helpful, the movie is more ambitious than it looks. In contemporary TV shows, we appreciate any episodes in which the puzzles are finally explained, especially if a season-long mystery is brewing. Sphere it’s as if a Lost-style mystery box were crammed in two hours. That’s not to say the film is secretly deep, but the reason it works like a novel is the same reason it doesn’t really work like a relatively short film. You are barely beginning to grasp the mysteries that tedious monologues unroll them for you.

As of 2020, an HBO Max adaptation of Sphere was lit green. A series is probably the best hypothetical adaptation of the story. If we had spent more time with these characters, their fears might have mattered more. And if the mystery of the sphere itself was extended, it might seem more interesting when explained. Sphere tried to get us to like a lot of ideas in a short time. It didn’t work, but it should be seen as a noble failure rather than a waste of money. Everything we love about sci-fi thrillers is in this movie. They just aren’t in the right combination.