Copyright © 1997, Dorian Scott Cole
My purpose isn't to rate movies on whether or not people should see
them. My main purpose is to use movies that people are currently
watching to explain what did or didn't work, and why. Then we can
all learn from these. My criterion for what did or didn't work is
simply, "Was it entertaining?" I go to movies to enjoy them, not
critique them. The critique comes later. See the end for an explanation
What is the difference between Sphere, Deep Rising, and Titanic? In all three there is a little romance, a lot of terror, and in the end the ship sinks. Could be a plot formula, right? Nah.
Sphere had some great writing going for it, and some not so good writing (or cutting).
On the positive side:
There was a nice variation on the ticking clock. One of the brilliant scientists, Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), deducted up-front that they could not possibly live to the end of the mission. That immediately set up a great tension for the entire film. When were they going to die - one at a time, or all at the end? One-by-one they began dying. The brilliant scientist could not be wrong. Foretelling the ending is a great plot device. The end was a nice twist, which I won't reveal.
How often can you reuse plots? That question is answered twice in this film. First of all, it has plot similarities to Deep Rising and Titanic. But no one would mistake one for the other, or probably even notice the similarities. And secondly, one of the plot questions, "What if we change our own future?" is a cliché for Trekkies (Star Trek watchers) and science fiction fans, but it was good addition to the plot. Good plots don't wear out - they just get new window dressing: new themes, new characters, new situations, new endings - the variations are as endless as the individual lives of each of us.
Of course if the plot is recognized you will be mercilessly criticized for it in the press. Better to come out before-hand and say, "This is an Abyss meets Solaris meets Deep Rising meets Titanic kind of story," then you are covered and raise expectations of a new twist on proven territory. Then the press can't come out shrieking, "You stole the plot from...," and lower expectations, ruining the box-office on that point alone. This story isn't the greatest, but it isn't "a dull lump of pseudo-psychological sci-fi claptrap." See Originality: Outrun Tired, Predictable Storylines.
Sphere is a psychological drama (thriller) - you don't know what is going on - mystery and suspense. You also don't know what is going to happen with the romance that once existed between two of the scientists, Goodman and Halperin (Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone). It is part of the plot, but how is it going to impact the plot. More surprises - this isn't a reconciliation or rescue movie (as much as I liked Abyss). The romance raises the tension immensely even though it is not there.
What was wrong with their radios and communications equipment? Again, we don't know what was going on. Were they defective? Was there interference from metallic objects? Was the sphere interfering? Were they just not answering? If I had been in the military and had people not responding, I would have ... something.
In this story, not knowing what is going on frequently adds to the sense of mystery. And most importantly, the writer didn't try to answer the question about what is inside - it is the mystery of life that beckons each of us.
Things that needed improvement:
Not knowing what is going on isn't necessarily a good thing. The first half of the movie was a little difficult to follow. Watch this one and see what bad transitions do to a story. You are watching one scene, and suddenly you are in another scene that seems totally disconnected and you have no idea what is going on. The story becomes muddled (fragmented and disconnected). Was the story not written in sequences? Did someone shuffle the story-board? Stories are not a series of disconnected scenes. Even though "CUT" creates a sharp transition, something has to connect the scenes: continuity of the story. I hope the cuttings contain the needed information and this story gets recut before it goes to video for immortality.
OK, they are on the ocean floor with an alien vehicle, so what has to happen next? A big storm has to come along and the fleet has to leave so they are without life-support and communications. I have this standard part on a card in my wallet just in case I forget the key ingredients - right. Let's see, what else could have happened? An explosion destroys vital equipment? A time-warp associated with the craft's location? The crew is believed lost and the project is abandoned for days? The entire "fleet loss" is a construction of their minds? They are a salvage operation in a remote area and stumble onto the craft, and there involved marine biologists who are nearby? They are setting up an exploration station, and the entire experience is from the effects of being "down there" too long, or from something they eat, or something in the air. Lots of possibilities, but the entire fleet/military/storm was like a contrived piece put in to make the story work, but was completely unrelated to the entire story. This part of the story needed a lot more creativity and credibility. It got me started off wrong at the beginning of the story - bad place to lose the audience. OK, here is a new rule which I think all writers should agree to: stories can't have big storms unless God writes it in there.
Oh, by the way, during the movie I think I was in the sphere. But given my short memory, I won't remember by tomorrow anyway.
This is a movie that does an excellent job of showing character transformation. It does a poor job of developing identification with the main character. Melvin (Jack Nicholson) is a seriously affected recluse (he's a psychotic stinker) who is unable to relate to other people. It seems to be a body chemistry problem. Around others he is either withdrawn, or if forced to communicate with people he goes on the attack. No one is going to get close to him. No one would - he has obsessive-compulsive behaviors that make him weird on top of being down-right unfriendly. He has medication that will help, but he won't take it. He puts his neighbor's dog down a garbage shoot. That's a bad sign. (Good writing move, revealing his character problems in a big way through this action in the first scene.)
But is this curmudgeon really a demon? Under that caustic shell is a real person who might come out for the right reason. Melvin is a romance writer. Does that reveal a real need and indicate that he potentially can relate to people? Melvin, who compulsively performs many rituals, has a compulsion to eat in a specific restaurant and can only be served by Carol (Helen Hunt), and brings his own sterile plastic utensils. And she is the only waitress in the restaurant who can stand him. He even badgers the other customers. But that small act of kindness by Carol is the seed of a transforming love. Perhaps it is taking care of the dog (the same one he pushed down the garbage shoot) that breaks down the initial barriers. (Poetic justice.) It breaks his compulsive routine and brings him emotionally in contact with something living outside of himself. And something messy, and germ-ridden, and uncontrollable.
Then hunger intervenes. Carol is not at the restaurant and he can't eat without her serving him, and he compulsively must eat at that restaurant. So he locates her.
This is Melvin's first step toward Carol. His next step is still largely selfish, he pays for a doctor to treat her son so that she can return to work and serve him - not just any doctor, but an excellent specialist who will work with the child until the condition is controllable. At first it is Melvin's compulsion that makes him become involved in Carol's life. Then it is more than a compulsion. Melvin continues taking some initiative to see Carol, who really does nothing to encourage him.
Melvin is improving - he seems in control and isn't nearly so irritable and nasty. In a very telling scene, Melvin reveals to Carol that she makes him want to take the medicine that controls his condition. It is love that has transformed him.
This is an excellent example of character transformation. The story step-by-step shows the character as he is, then the small things that add up to bring about character change, then show the actual change.
On another level, reactions to the story vary. Melvin is a difficult character to stomach, and he doesn't engender much sympathy. Without some sympathy or identification from the audience, people would just as soon see the dog put Melvin down the garbage shoot as see him get the girl. If I could improve the story, that is where I would do the work. It's sad on the one hand that we are so far isolated from people like Melvin that we can't have much compassion. On the other hand, the writer needs to keep in mind that we (the audience) need to want the main character to succeed, and on a very simplistic level that means the writer has to show us something good in the character that we can relate to.
OK, OK, I admit it, I enjoyed this animated story. Besides the well animated character of Anastasia, I especially enjoyed the evil Rasputin and his side-kick Bartok, the bat. The story of Anastasia is extracted from history and made into a fable - a fairytale for young... and old. It is a based on story, and not a recreation of facts. The Russian Revolution (1918) is personified as Rasputin, the evil person who wants to crush decadence from his world, and ultimately is shown to want to kill every bit of the human spirit (the last remaining Romanov) even though it will accomplish little - it still is the spirit - the hope - of the people.
Rasputin and Bartok are the characters I think we can learn from. It is the personification of evil that turns this fable into a fairytale and carries the moral of the story. Rasputin represents the attack on the human spirit, which is total and unrelenting. Rasputin is the grave - rotting, soulless, waste - yet he is so well drawn that he manages to get several laughs from me and probably does not scare children. He is deliciously wicked. Just as delightful as Rasputin is Bartok, the bat. Bartok is a spoiler character. Like the Grinche's dog in the The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, by Doctor Seuss, Bartok is not perfectly aligned with his master's mission. Bartok finally says, "You're on your own," and abandons Rasputin. This has the effect of saying that Rasputin is absolute evil and his mission makes no sense to anyone. It's an interesting use of a spoiler.
Side note: The moral seems to be that you can make all people equal, but people want a little decadence, a little refinement. It represents hope in difficult times, and represents something to work toward. In the end, the human spirit will triumph. Interestingly, members of the Soviet regime attained similar levels of opulent life-style that Marx and Lenin had tried to eradicate.
I saw the 1934 Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much, as a child. I still remember the ending scene in which the star, tied up, was being taken somewhere in a row-boat. His lips were "going to be sealed." I didn't know what that meant, but the words sounded ominous. The point is, there really were no memorable scenes in The Man Who Knew Too Little. Truly great films stand out forever, but most writers I'm sure hope for at least good. Not quite there on this one. What is it that makes a film good? Mostly, I think, not one single element, but several things done well so that the entire experience creates the unbroken fictional dream. I was jolted out of this one several times. Wallace (Bill Murray) would have to have been incredibly stupid to have believed that he was still in a role play episode instead of in the real spy plot.
The comedy is farce (nothing serious), but the Wallace character was drawn or portrayed as too real. The problem is, a real character walked into a Dumb and Dumber type movie. This is a good movie to learn what not to do in comedy. If a character is really that stupid, then somehow we have to be made to believe it.
The Devil's gonna' get'cha' if you don't watch out. This is a fun horror-thriller that holds a mirror to your soul and makes you wonder if the Devil is already standing on your tail. Anyone who is in the public eye has to pause for a moment and ask himself if what he is doing is to inflate his vanity or has purer motives. For anyone who is soul-searching, I'm placing a link to my own page on self-esteem from Writers Workshop Script Doctor.
This movie is an excellent example of several things. It is high-concept - good VS evil. It shows that religious themes can be presented in movies. It shows the value of good sets. It is an example of metaphors and symbols. I didn't see much that I would have changed in the movie (but I'm not a big fan of horror).
Concept and premise
It is a high-concept movie - good VS evil. Can religious themes be presented in movies? Yes, if the idea is to portray human nature and not to force religion down other's collective throats. This was an excellent portrayal of human nature, even if we are not all susceptible to falling to pride and vanity, and even if we don't necessarily take the idea of the devil literally. The premise is still valid: people who sell out on their values in order to profit in money or fame, will ultimately reach the height of corruption and pay a heavy price. This is something we all basically believe.
John Milton (Al Pacino), the Devil, is an excellent character. Usually we try to make bad characters all bad. It's high concept. However, John not only speaks Bible verses, he is often kind and gives good advice (true to devil form). Yet his soul is rotten to the core - he only wants people to fail. To that end, he puts temptation before them, confident that they can't resist. It is after all, "their choice." Vanity is his favorite sin - we all want to think well of ourselves, usually to make up for some perceived deficit in ourselves. So John is a mentor for evil instead of good. He is a symbol (or metaphor) for what life often brings us - sweet temptation complete with warnings.
Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a lawyer who is also a metaphor for the perceived wretchedness of all lawyers - they plead for the guilty. Inspired by the O.J. trial? Well, when you and I are in the hot-seat, guilt is a relative term - but when others are there we want to see them burn in hell, and their lawyers, too. Hmmm. But Kevin is a very well drawn character that we can each see ourselves in, and who falls right into the trap. He portrays human nature - the human condition. His path is his own choice, after all, and he has had plenty of "good" training and leading. We can identify with him, hate him, and want him to "live," all at the same time. He is a very complex and very well drawn character.
Mary Ann Lomax (Charlize Theron) is a great study of someone being deprived of the things we all want most - and given "things" instead. It's almost like sensory deprivation - she goes mad. It isn't long before she is neurotic and imaging all kinds of things.
Plot and Structure
The plot is very well conceived. For a long time, we suspect John is the devil, but he is so nice at times that we really don't know for sure. Like Kevin, we go along willingly, but something in our bones tells us that something can't be quite right. The end is a real surprise. A+ for plot and structure.
This was a visually exciting movie. The sets were impeccably designed. The apartment building was a metaphor for "the devil's house." The top floor is symbolic of the devils lair - beautiful to look at, but cold, barren, and lifeless - not at all warm, comfortable, and welcoming.
Cinematography added a lot to the movie, but it was also very graphic in places.
Writer: I use the term writer loosely in
these critiques. Creating a movie is a collaborative effort, and the original
writer does not have a lot of control over the finished work, unlike a
novel in which the reader sees exactly what the writer wrote (except for
editing, which is less common). The producer, director, other writers,
actors, film editors, cinematographers, musicians, and a myriad of other
creative people have their own vision of the story and influence what goes
on the screen. If the director and film editor cut portions out, then what
the writer put there might not be there. So when I say writer, I am really
referring to the many creative people who are telling a story on screen.
And it is a lesson for the rest of us writers.
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