Playing Nice with Sphere, by Sarah Brinks
Thank you for reading “Playing Nice,” a series of articles that will examine group dynamics in film. I’m not a behavioral psychologist or anything but I am an avid movie watcher and life-long member/observer of the human race. One of the things that have fascinated me over the years is how group dynamics are depicted in film and especially how they are depicted when the thin veneer of society is stripped away.
**This article will contain spoilers. I highly recommend you watch the film first and then read the article if you care about spoilers.** Sphere is a film that examines fear. After the discovery of an alien spaceship on the ocean floor a group of specialists are flown out to the middle of the ocean and sent to an underwater habitat to make contact with the potential alien life onboard. Dustin Hoffman plays Dr. Norman Goodman, a phycologist who wrote a report years ago about the group that should make first contact with an alien lifeform. He suggests a psychologist, a mathematician (Harry, played by Samuel L Jackson), a biochemist (Beth, played by Sharon Stone), and an astrophysicist (Ted, played by Liev Schreiber). It turns out it is a space ship from Earth that fell into a black hole and crashed in the ocean in Earths past. Onboard the ship is a sphere. It is large and looks like it is made of liquid metal; it is a strange object because it is able to choose what it reflects. It turns out the object can also imbue powers on people, making them able to manifest their fears, wishes, and dreams.
It is never made clear what the object is but it seems to test the members of the team. The members that “go into the sphere” are given the ability to manifest whatever their mind can conjure. It takes some time for them to discover they have this power and that they can control it to a degree, but instead of proving that they are capable of using the power to better humanity and the planet they use it to torture each other and themselves. The power manifests their fears. Fear is such a base emotion and it is so powerful it results in the death of the entire crew except for Norman, Beth, and Harry. The surviving members experience fight or flight reactions, group hallucinations, and much more as they battle the worst things their imaginations can conjure.
Trust is a major theme in the film; not only trust in others but trust in yourself. The sphere gives them super-human powers without them realizing it, so subconsciously they manifest their fears as giant squids, sea snakes, and mysterious messages from an unknown “alien”. These are scientists, people who trust logic and data, when they are forced to face something outside their realm of understanding trust immediately breaks down. Captain Barnes is the most paranoid of all of them. As a member of the intelligence community trust must be a hard commodity to come by. He is suspicious of Beth, the biochemist, because she is on medication and has a history of attempted suicide; she also has a deeply rooted anger towards Norman. Norman distrusts Harry, Beth distrusts Norman, Norman and Harry team up against Beth and the round-robin of mistrust cycles again and again.
Another major theme is humanity’s capacity for fear and punishment. Norman admits at the end of the film that they were given an incredible power and all they did was manifest their worst fears and hurt each other. They were not the right people to possess this power and so they choose to let the power go. This choice inevitably leads to the cycle of the future ship picking up the sphere, falling into the black hole, and crashing into the ocean floor in the past to be discovered all over again but they make the best decision they can in a difficult situation. Even after they realize that they have the power to manifest things they continue to create things that are dangerous. Beth arms a set of explosives then they send themselves back to the alien ship when they are trying to get away from the explosives in a mini-sub. Even the manifestation of “Jerry” the alien talking to them on the monitors seems determined to kill them. They seem unable to manifest things that are peaceful or helpful.
They are in one of the most hostile environments imaginable. They are at the bottom of the ocean in a metal structure that becomes compromised by one of their manifestations of a giant squid. Anyone would struggle to keep it together at the bottom of the ocean in tight quarters with virtual strangers and the pressure to meet an alien lifeform. When “Jerry” begins to speak to them on the screen it changes the stakes completely. They do not know it is their own manifestation talking to them but once they realize “Jerry” can hear them, they no longer have the benefit of privacy and that makes people incredibly nervous. This only serves to heighten the atmosphere of fear and panic. As a result the manifestations continue to hurt them.
Norman is the connective tissue within the group; he knows Beth, Harry, and Ted. The only people Norman doesn’t know are the Navy personnel and they are the first to die. Teeny and Edmunds die quite early in the film but Captain Barnes played by Peter Coyote is the head authority figure and makes things more difficult in the habitat. He puts Beth on edge when he learns about her suicide attempt. He demands Norman understand the psyche of an alien, and he wants control over the situation that he so clearly cannot control. Norman and Beth’s relationship is tested a number of times. Beth seemingly betrays Norman by leaving alone while he is outside the habitat resetting the mini-sub. Beth believes Harry relieved her while Norman was outside but Harry denies it. When they suspect Harry as being the sole source of the manifestations they team up and manage to knock him out with a drug concoction. Then later Beth believes Norman is also manifesting his fears and she almost drowns him in the lab. In the end Norman is able to admit that he shouldn’t have had an affair with her while he was married and Beth is able to forgive him.
Sphere shows man’s inherent ability to be cruel to his fellow man. However if you put any group of people in a high stress environment they will eventually react. If you add aliens, manifestations, and near death into the mix you have a recipe for the worst displays of humanity and that is what you get in the film. The fact that they are scientists and professionals means they attempt to rationalize their situation but ultimately it doesn’t stop them from acting like humans. What do you think you would manifest if you had the power? What would have been your worst fear come to life? If you found yourself at the bottom of the ocean talking to Jerry, would you play nice?