For all of our scientific progress, there is still so much we don’t know about the ocean. We have explored a mere 5% of the deep blue sea which leaves plenty of mystery lurking beneath the waves. Perhaps it’s this wealth of secrets that continues to terrify and intrigue. In the 80s, we were gifted with aquatic greats like The Abyss, Leviathan and The Rift. Then, around the late 90s, another wave of salty soaked terror crashed upon movie goers with Deep Rising and Dagon. And while many of these names likely sound familiar, there is often one film that woefully tends to get left off aquatic horror film lists; Barry Levinson’s 1998 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Sphere.
Tagline: A thousand feet beneath the sea, the blackest holes are in the mind…
The OSSA discovers a spacecraft thought to be at least 300 years old at the bottom of the ocean. Immediately following the discovery, they decide to send a team down to the depths of the ocean to study the space craft. They are the best of best, smart and logical, and the perfect choice to learn more about the spacecraft…in theory anyways.
Unlike so many of the film’s counterparts, there is no real creature for Sphere to rely on. No mutated beast or undiscovered species stalking and terrorizing the unfortunate souls who have stumbled upon its presence in the dark. More along the lines of Philip K. Dick meets Event Horizon, Sphere is a psychological horror film that also happens to take place a thousand feet beneath the sea. This shift in focus is important as it puts Sphere‘s characters firmly in the driver’s seat. While there have always been critics of the film unsatisfied with its ending, adaptation, execution and heavily inflated budget, very few ever critique the cast and characters. Led by Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone and Liev Schreiber it is easy to understand why. All masters of their craft, each perfectly execute their roles. While each of these lead characters are uniquely fascinating and worthy of discussion, today’s focus is on Dr. Elizabeth Halperin played by Sharon Stone.
When we first meet Beth, we find out that she is a biochemist who has been called in to assist the highly classified underwater mission. Her former lover, psychologist Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman) was once hired to create a government plan for handling initial contact with an alien. Bullshitting his way through the project, Norman suggested a few intelligent scientists in his immediate circle thinking the whole report was an easy payday and would never see the light of day. Called on his bluff, the reunion between all four scientists is confused, hesitant and fraught with tension. During a preliminary health screening, Norman reveals that Beth was actually a former patient of his. When she’s asked whether or not she takes any form of medication she replies nervously that she may take a Xanax here and there for anxiety. Then, when questioned about the scar running horizontally across her neck Beth reveals it’s a result from a car accident. The official asks if she had been drinking that night to which Beth cooly replies, ‘Yeah, but I wasn’t driving.‘
This integrated reveal of information through the film’s narrative allows the audience to start to piece together Beth‘s past while simultaneously shining a light on her present. In the moment, Beth is observant, inquisitive, understandably cautious, but calm. Although her interactions with Norman are short and there is an obvious tension between them, Beth reacts professionally. Consciously, she makes the decision to put her professional self before her personal feelings. But regardless of her current demeanor, her past and mental state become called into question early. Through these short scenes we get the impression that Beth encounters scenarios like these at interval. The blurring of professional and personal lines is one that hits early on in Beth’s development, but sends ripples throughout the entire film.
Led by U.S. Navy Captain Barnes (Peter Coyote), the team quickly heads to explore the massive unidentified spaceship once they hit the sea floor. Sitting undetected for hundreds of years, the sheer enormity of the discovery overwhelms all other buried issues between the four scientists. Almost. Even when exploring the inside of the ship Beth manages to weasel in a sly comment revealing that Norman hid his marital status from her during their relationship. It’s an interesting narrative tactic seeing how Norman is our main focus in the story. Although he is who we follow continuously, more and more damning and distasteful information gets revealed about him as we move along.
Quickly the team discovers the ship is an American craft from the future due to an ‘Unknown Entry Event.’ And when it arrived back home, at a different time, it did not arrive alone. This is where The Sphere itself comes into play. A fluid, perfect gold sphere, The Sphere is a mysterious, seemingly sentient entity. Choosing what to reflect on its beguiling gold surface, all members of the crew are fascinated. After learning of a developing cyclone on the surface, Barnes orders a return to the surface. Rather than missing out on the discovery of a lifetime, mathematician Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), returns to the ship and manages to enter The Sphere. When he exits, he unknowingly gains the mysterious power to manifest whatever he imagines.
“In lesser hands a character like Beth could have been a disaster […] Sharon Stone deserves some serious credit.”
Following the recovery of Adams, things starts to get very weird and dangerous for the small crew. Perhaps due to this added stress, Barnes shifts focus and calls Beth‘s mental stability and professional efficacy into question with Norman. Somehow, Barnes accessed Norman‘s session notes on Beth which revealed a suicide attempt. Norman counters Barnes‘ claims and grows increasingly defensive when Barnes calls her a ‘nut bag.’ Norman explains the attempt was passive, that she reached out for help, and it was directly tied to their deteriorating relationship. Despite the attempt at chivalry, Norman‘s words come across as highly self-serving and more an effort to alleviate his own guilt.
It’s impossible to ignore that Beth is the only scientist who’s personal past becomes used against her. Even though Norman himself was an active player in Beth‘s past struggles with her mental health he takes zero responsibility and is not held at all accountable by his peers. Even with the bits of story that we are given, Norman‘s clear abuse of power and position in regards to Beth is crystal clear. As The Sphere begins to play a more and more dangerous role in the small crew’s story, we see Beth questioned in a variety of disturbing ways. When she begs Norman not to utilize the ship’s electric defense system (which starts a fire every time it’s used) to shake loose an attacking giant squid, Bates calls her crazy and tells Norman to ignore her.
When Beth leaves Norman and Harry in an unintentional lurch while exploring the spaceship for food, Beth‘s logic and motives are called into question. Even when Beth explains what happened in a focused, descriptive way, Norman manipulates the conversation in disturbing fashion. Accusing her of having a psychotic break, Norman steers the conversation back to his experience and how he was affected. Using his personal and professional knowledge against her, Norman gaslights Beth by calling her a ‘danger’ to everyone, including herself. Sowing pointed, hurtful seeds of self-doubt, Norman‘s actions simultaneously disgust and function as a narrative red herring.
Although this particular scene is an uncomfortable one to watch, it acts as a transformational moment for Beth. All the little nicks and sly comments regarding her mental state have built up to this one defining moment. Refusing to give in to Norman‘s mental manipulation, Beth stands strong, advocating for herself when no one else will. It’s a powerful, emotional moment and it’s one that Stone plays to perfection. The sheer exhaustion of having to constantly defend, explain and prove herself is written all over her face. The deep, dark remnants of trauma reveal themselves through her piercing blue eyes. With or without Norman‘s support, this version of Beth stands strong through the rest of the film, refusing to give in to everyone’s perception of her. What’s even more heartbreaking is that Beth needs to take that stand alone in the first place.
Beth‘s story in Sphere is fucked up. Even when shaded in murky movie magic, the realistic tragedy of her story seeps through. Throughout the film’s run time a variety of complicated issues are addressed in familiar and sadly believable ways. Like salt in a deep wound, quick, pointed bites from her colleagues embody the stigma surrounding mental health, eating away at Beth‘s self-esteem. Outdated and hurtful language gets thrown around in regards to Beth as she is called ‘crazy’ and ‘dangerous.’ Several hazardous situations could have been avoided if her co-workers simply believed what she was telling them. And then there’s the issue of abuse and trauma that comes up when Beth is forced to not only confront her abuser, but work alongside him as well.
For many of us who struggle with trauma, abuse, mental health and sexism, the stigma surrounding these issues is a very real and palpable force. It can take many shapes and present itself in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. As an audience watching Beth‘s journey from the outside, we see her navigate these choppy waters with determined, weathered resolve. Even though she has given none of her new coworkers any reason to doubt her abilities or intelligence, they get called into question at every conceivable opportunity. There’s a sad relatability to Beth‘s story as there is still so much work to be done in regards to how society treats and understands these complicated issues.
“Beth’s story […] is fucked up. Even when shaded in murky movie magic, the realistic tragedy of her story seeps through. “
Beth‘s efforts to balance her professional and personal life is one that is important and resonates particularly strong these days. No one should have to work in an abusive and unsafe environment. No one should ever have to choose between mental and physical safety and professional standing. Predatory, inappropriate and illegal behavior should be called out and those responsible need to be held accountable. Unfortunately for Beth, no one other than herself really advocates for her or supports her in any real way. Every once in a while Norman tries to, but as the man who abused his professional position as a mental health care provider, the effort comes across as contrived. Oh, and it should also be mentioned, Norman never once apologizes or attempts to seriously address the issue with Beth until the very last moments of the film. Even then, one could argue the apology only happened as a manifestation on Beth‘s part.
In lesser hands a character like Beth could have been a disaster. For the subtle, strong and nuanced version of Beth that we get, Sharon Stone deserves some serious credit. Her performance is not only believable, but it highlights the potential complexity that can result from the blurring of personal and professional lines. Even now, Beth stands as a complex entity. Preserved and protected in time, she still manages to hold a liquid gold mirror up society reflecting our standards and beliefs surrounding mental health and abuse of professional power. In the 22 years since the film’s release so much has changed…and so much has stayed the same. This intersectionality simultaneously shines a light on Beth‘s situation as well as how it might be handled today in 2020. The tragedy lies in where past and present intersect. Change is rarely easy, especially when it pertains to large, societal behaviors. But that is no excuse. Like The Sphere itself, the future is filled with endless potential…or more of the same. Nothing is written in stone. The time to manifest change is now.
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