Feb 18, 1998 at 12:00 am

Mysteries abound in Hollywood. Why, for instance, would Barry Levinson, a director capable of fine material such as Wag the Dog, waste his time on a Michael Crichton mess. The easy answer might be that time is, after all, money. More plausible is the suggestion that Levinson gets off on trying to make silk purses out of sow's ears.

He certainly has his work cut out for him here. Sphere, adapted from yet another of Crichton's techno-junkie blockbusters, does some heavy hack work on the heavy hitters of the genre. Alien, 2001 and The Abyss are duly raided for plot points. When a spaceship is found below the Pacific Ocean, it is carbon-dated to be more than 400 years old. American army gurus, no doubt brainwashed by "The X-files," believe it to be a UFO. As a result, a team of scientific experts (Sharon Stone, Dustin Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson) is dispatched to the scene. Descending into the drink, they search the spacecraft and come across a giant metallic sphere. Soon they figure out how to crack the egg, as it were, and step inside. When they emerge, they possess strange powers (which, alas, don't include making the film move any faster). Meanwhile, their ship's computer screens begin to light up with friendly messages such as "I am going to kill you." Whatever can it all mean?

In a word, nothing but the usual Crichton speculative rubbish about the hubris of science. Levinson is a director of great characters, not great action. Dreck like this requires the savvy eye of a Ridley Scott to bring it off. Thus, one is advised to watch the performances for fleeting moments of pleasure. Samuel Jackson always provides a charismatic and welcome jive skepticism. Sharon Stone delivers her usual psychotic intensity. In a casino or under the sea, she's wiggy to a fault. Only Hoffman, Method maniac par excellence, keeps his psychologist this side of a flip-out when the action turns hard-boiled. Useful only for bad egg metaphors in middling reviews, Sphere counted its chickens before they were hatched. And just look at the mess.

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