Tag Archives: (1987)

Sphere (1987) by Michael Crichton


One of the fun things about reading is coming across echoes of other books you’ve read. I recently finished After Worlds Collide, and in one scene, a couple of characters discover a kind of plaque or road marker left by an alien civilization. On it is a design; not words or any real picture, just a design. In some inexplicable way, that design seems somehow un-human. And now, in Sphere, etched upon the titular object, is another strange design, one which, again, the hero finds to be un-human. Now, these are basically two-dimensional abstract patterns. Humans, of course, are very familiar with both these dimensions, which have been well explored not just by artists but by billions of doodlers throughout history. I kind of figure just about any design imaginable has been rendered by someone at some time in history. And I sure can’t get my mind around such a drawing being so odd that it is essentially inconceivable, and therefore un-human. Nope, with all due respect to the authors, I’m just not buying it.

Happily, this being a Michael Crichton novel, that’s about the only thing that isn’t, on some level, believable. The guy was a master of milieu, whether the setting was a large corporation, a dinosaur theme park, or a deep sea Navy habitat.

That’s where we find ourselves here, a thousand feet down in the Pacific ocean, where the Navy is investigating a very large, very strange vessel at least 300 years old. But it isn’t any boat; it’s a spacecraft.

Though the Navy is in charge of the overall mission, the primary investigators are a group of civilian scientists — a mathematician, an astrophysicist, a zoologist, and a psychologist. This allows Crichton to attack the problem of the ship, and the mysterious sphere found inside, on a number of different fronts. But Norman, the psychologist, is the hero. He’s there to keep everyone working together smoothly, a decidedly difficult job under the best of circumstances, given the egos and insecurities of the other scientists.

But these are hardly ideal circumstances. First of all, there’s all that crushing water above them. Farther up still, a cyclone blows in and sends the support vessels running for safe haven. Meanwhile, down below, strange things begin happening. And then the monsters attack.

In broad outline, that might sound like any number of other books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen, and it is. The difference is that Crichton handles it all ridiculously well. In an early scene, Norman discovers that Harry, the mathematician, tried to make out his will shortly after arriving in the habitat. It’s a small detail, but one that pays off not once, but twice during the course of the story, in two different ways. A Crichton thriller is anything but ham-handed  (State of Fear being, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule).

In fact, it’s Crichton’s subtlety that can make him difficult to synopsize: everything connects and whatever you might mention comes off sounding like a spoiler. The truth is, beneath the outline, the details of the story aren’t the typical blend of science fiction and horror. There’s the ship, for example, and the sphere, and the monsters…but I’ll just have to leave it at that.

This is one of Crichton’s best books, and Crichton at his best is exciting, suspenseful, funny, and perfectly plausible.


The Running Man (1987), directed by Paul Michael Glaser


The Running Man earns the right to switch on the No Thinking sign with Richard Dawson’s performance. Dawson, not Arnold Schwarznegger, holds the movie together, and he does it so pitch-perfectly that nit-picking seems like an exercise in masochism.

In fact, there’s less to complain about here than in Stephen King’s novel. King’s undefined and contradictory society becomes a police state; his self-destructively angry hero becomes a man falsely accused; and his game, in which innocent bystanders and policeman are targets, becomes a death-match between “criminals” and hired guns, played out in a derelict and empty part of the city. I won’t say it makes sense, exactly, but it makes a lot more sense than the book — just enough for us to be able to ignore it as we grab another handful of popcorn.

Schwarzenegger is Ben Richards, former cop and fall-guy for the government’s murder of scores of civilians during a food riot. His subsequent escape from prison is national news, bringing him to the attention of Damon Killian (Dawson), the host of “The Running Man,” a popular and sadistic television show. When recaptured, Ben is coerced into appearing as a contestant on the show.

Schwarzenegger has complained that director Paul Micheal Glaser “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes.” That makes Glaser a hero in my book. “Deeper themes”? Give me a break. This movie doesn’t get any deeper than Ben’s double entendres just before or after he kills someone (“He had to split,” he says of a man he’s cut partially in half with a chainsaw).

As for the rest, it’s the television show that makes this movie fun. Dawson, whose 10-year run as host of The Family Feud had only recently ended, plays his evil twin with a fidelity no one else could have matched. Off-air, he’s an egotistical martinet, but on-air, he’s an affable master of audience manipulation. It would have been so easy to inject a smarminess in his portrayal as a wink to the audience that, really, game show hosts are beneath us, but Dawson plays Killian straight, and the movie is better for it. I think it succeeds because of it: if we questioned Killian, we’d question everything else.

Then it would have been no better than the book.

Rampage (1987), directed by William Friedkin


Thriller and courtroom drama about a whackjob who savagely kills five people and the prosecutor who, theoretically conflicted, argues in favor of the death penalty.  Based on the book by William P. Wood and “inspired by” true events — the case of serial killer Richard Chase.  Friedkin (who produced, wrote, and directed the film) provides no easy answers, yet fails to provide much in the way of food for thought, either, despite tackling both the death penalty and legal insanity.  Alex McArthur handles the “innocence” of insanity quite well (he’s certainly a cheerful maniac) and Michael Biehn is good as the prosecutor; the script, however, never allows either of them to dig very deeply into their characters or the issues surrounding them.  Which is just as well, as the ending undercuts their differing psychologies anyway.  Originally released in Europe with a different ending; re-cut and modified for US release by Friedkin after studio bankruptcy left the movie stranded on the shelf for five years.  Less violent than you might expect:  the really horrible stuff occurs off-screen.