25 years ago, "Jurassic Park with aliens" turned into one of the biggest flops ever 3 months ago

25 years ago, "Jurassic Park with aliens" turned into one of the biggest flops ever

This one had sooooo much potential...

When author Michael Crichton released his book Jurassic Park in 1990, followed by the massive blockbuster adaptation by Steven Spielberg in 1993, Hollywood rushed to his catalogue to source the next big hit from him. In quick succession, we got big screen versions of Rising Sun, Disclosure and Congo, while on the small screen, he hit it big with medical drama ER.


Crichton also wrote the screenplay for 1996 disaster epic Twister, so for the guts of a decade, he was basically to sci-fi tinged blockbusters what Stephen King was (and is) to the horror genre. During that gold rush, producers also bought the rights to his 1987 novel Sphere, which had the hopes of doing with aliens what Jurassic Park had done with dinosaurs. Except it didn't work out that way for anyone involved...

The plot involves a spacecraft, presumed to be of alien origin, suddenly discovered on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, except readings indicate that it has been there for over 300 years. The government puts together a team of experts, including marine biologist Dr. Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), mathematician Dr. Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), astrophysicist Dr. Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber), psychologist Dr. Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman), and U.S. Navy Captain Harold Barnes (Peter Coyote), and sends them all to the Habitat, a living environment on the ocean floor near the spacecraft.

Upon investigation of the craft, the team discovers that it actually isn't alien, but has travelled back in time from the distant future, and on board is a huge, floating, perfectly spherical golden ball. One by one, the sphere begins to influence the members of the crew, as well as apparently manifesting some of their biggest fears, up to and including the creation of a giant squid which attacks the Habitat.


If you're thinking that all sounds interesting and exciting, you're not wrong. It sounds very interesting and exciting, and in the original book, it was brilliantly tense and claustrophobic, your mind playing along with the horror show tricks being pulled on the crew themselves.

But in the movie, it never manifests into anything other than muddled confusion. Despite that truly spectacular cast, the script by Kurt Wimmer (who provided the scripts for 2012's bad remake of Total Recall and 2015's bad remake of Point Break) leaned too far into the psychological aspects of the story, which is all well and good... except this was a very expensive blockbuster that was about time-travelling aliens.

It also didn't help that the movie was directed by what, in hindsight, seems like a truly dreadful choice: Barry Levinson. The Oscar-winning helmer of Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man had done decent business directing Disclosure four years earlier, that movie making over $214 million from a $55 million budget. But Disclosure was more of an erotic thriller with some weird pseudo-sci-fi elements (whatever the hell was going on with that virtual reality programme), and the character work was well within Levinson's wheelhouse.

That was not the case with Sphere, which was halted before production over budgetary concerns. Warner Bros. eventually agreed to assign $80 million to the movie, which even in 1998, wasn't enough. At the same time, Armageddon was costing $140 million and Godzilla had a $150 million price tag. Blockbusters were costing more and more money, and Sphere clearly wasn't going to get the money that it needed to fully realise its potential.


Covering over the cracks with messy editing sequences - the "Almost got me killed..." scene alone is just tough to watch - and with some of the biggest set-pieces almost being referred to as happening just off screen, the whole thing just didn't add up to much. Released in cinemas on 13 February 1998, audiences agreed - the movie banked $73.4 million worldwide, so was a big loss for WB that year - and critics were not kind, landing with just 13% on Rotten Tomatoes.

After this, there was only two more Crichton adaptations. His novel Eaters Of The Dead was turned into 1999's The 13th Warrior, from director John McTiernan (Die Hard, Predator), which turned into one of the biggest box office bombs in movie history: the $160 million production returned just $61.7 million worldwide, while Timeline was brought to the big screen in 2003 by director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Superman) and also absolutely tanked: $80 million budget, $44 million box office.

Which is a shame, as there are plenty more potentially great Crichton books to be given the big screen treatment - Prey would make a great horror movie about sentient nanotechnology, and State Of Fear definitely plays into the very topical issues of global warming - but Hollywood has since been very shy about returning to this particular well.


Sphere is available to rent at home right now on Apple TV, Google Play, Rakuten TV and the Sky Store.

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