Sphere ‘s Seasick; Dark City Sleeps

Get ready for a batch of new movies dedicated to the Hollywood theory that in the nonsensical 90’s there’s an audience for just about anything so long as it’s weird and incomprehensible. First up at bat: Sphere and Dark City , two sci-fi horror flicks that are more silly than scary. What some people consider thought-provoking leaves others sitting there scratching their heads. Both movies have the cheesy effect of making you raise an eyebrow, glance at your wristwatch and say, “Huh?”

Sphere is an underwater thriller that is never remotely thrilling, although I must admit I derived a certain rush of humorous adrenaline from watching Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone soaking wet while fighting off a couple of venomous sea snakes and a script that is soggier than they are. Mr. Hoffman plays a psychologist and Ms. Stone a biochemist who join a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson) and an astrophysicist (Liev Schreiber) in a top-secret Government mission led by a mysterious team captain (Peter Coyote) to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life 1,000 feet below sea level on the ocean floor. Seems an alien spaceship landed 400 years ago on the bottom of the Pacific halfway between Honolulu and Sydney, and this is the “contact team” recruited to investigate in a pressurized submarine called the Habitat. What they find is a huge underwater set of catwalks, grids, steam valves and a whirling, gold, mercurial sphere that looks like a hideous backdrop for the Grammy Awards.

Nothing much happens for the first hour, except Queen Latifah’s character gets eaten by jellyfish and bizarre coded messages are received on the Internet from a happy alien named Jerry. Then the so-called horror starts, but since this is one of those pretentious, cerebral bores by Michael Crichton, most of the horror is dialogue full of scientific mumbo jumbo nobody can even begin to decipher. One by one, the actors enter the sphere to find out what’s inside, and it takes 2 hours and 15 minutes to learn that what’s inside is- nothing. Mangled, crushed, half-drowned and attacked from all angles, with every escape route blocked, the crew of eggheads decides the only monster inside the Habitat is in their imagination. Meanwhile, hundreds of disgusted filmgoers will undoubtedly feel like taking their imagination to another part of the cineplex, like a screen showing Titanic. When I go to a monster movie and the only monster turns out to be the fear and paranoia that lies hidden in my own subconscious, I start thinking hateful thoughts, like how to sabotage the concession stand for free diet Cokes. The only reason so many high-profile actors have pooled their reputations on junk like Sphere is, I assume, their trust and admiration for the director, Barry Levinson, but with time and oxygen running out, they react to unactable material by turning on each other and going off their rockers. I sympathized completely.

Dark City is another of those virtual-reality trips that makes no logical sense, but at least it’s cinematic. The title refers to a town floating in space in which the humans are preyed upon by a gang of gruesome, white-faced ghouls in floor-length black coats from Edward Gorey cartoons. In this Kafkaesque society, the chimes strike midnight every hour on the hour, and the human populace freezes in a state of narcolepsy while the fiends jam medieval hypodermic needles into their brains, withdrawing fluids for experiments worthy of a medical team of Nazis under the tutelage of Josef Mengele and the butchers of Buchenwald. Then they mix and match the memories of their victims, storing all data in test tubes, searching for the key to humanity.

This malevolent process is called “tuning,” and the only man in Dark City with the will strong enough to resist the evil powers of “tuning” is Welsh actor Rufus Sewell, who naturally becomes the focus of a manhunt by both the underground ghouls and a cynical detective (William Hurt) who is, like the audience, never sure what the hell is going on. Oozing around on the sidelines is a mad doctor right out of an old Bela Lugosi movie, played by Kiefer Sutherland. The acting is uniformly atrocious, with Mr. Hurt playing a befuddled cop named Inspector Bumstead like an obvious relative of Dagwood, and Mr. Sutherland playing evil by breaking up every sentence in three-word intervals, like Gestapo-agent caricatures in low-budget World War II movies.

Filmed on futuristic sets in Australia by cult director Alex ( The Crow ) Proyas, Dark City ‘s characters are neither human enough to seem credible nor sinister enough to be satiric monsters that sustain attention, but for a movie that takes place entirely in the dark, it is brilliantly photographed, with a boiling stew of lurid images-bloody butcher knives glittering in lamplight, black alleys and corridors lit only by yellow steam, an automat illuminated by fluorescents-that make for a chillingly memorable creep show.

Gershwins Strike Back

Two consecutive nights at the theater proved once again what a city of violent contrasts this is. For one enchanted evening, I reveled in the delectable fun and innocence of the Encores! concert revival of George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 musical Strike Up the Band. The next night, I was jolted back into the nasty, nihilistic sewer of 1998, gagging my way through Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking , a dead-on-arrival London import that proves how much unmitigated crap can come out of a 31-year-old jerk with confusion, angst and a word processor. I’ll take the Gershwins.

Innovative and challenging in the Jazz Age, Strike Up the Band was the first musical political satire, impudent and biting in its farcical sendup of patriotism, profiteering, social climbing and free speech, and the plot, in which America declares war against pacifist Switzerland over the price of cheese, is as corny and captivating in the light of today’s international political fiascoes as it was back in 1930.

Philip Bosco was outstanding as a blustery cheese tycoon who personified all self-made fools eager for personal fame in the face of war; Judy Kuhn was charming as his snobby, socialite daughter singing “The Man I Love”; and Lynn Redgrave hilariously camped it up in Art Deco drag as a penniless, man-hungry matron, vamping “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” But the real star discovery turned out to be David Elder, a dashing, tap-dancing cross between Bobby Van and Harold Lang, who would be whisked off to an M-G-M contract if Louis B. Mayer were still alive. With its generosity of spirit, its star-spangled Gershwin score and tonic flag-waving direction and choreography, it was one of the happiest nights I’ve had in donkey’s years.

In Shopping and Fucking , a pathetic creep played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is too fat to be a convincing heroin junkie, lives with two retarded skinheads in a desperate carnal family ménage. When the breadwinner (a contemporary Fagin, out of Dickens by way of Quentin Tarantino) gets dragged off to drug rehab, the two skinheads lose the skag they’re dealing in a disco and resort to phone sex. While ugly neon letters flash “Home,” “Money,” “Suck” and “Meat,” and a screaming wench screeches “Life is a bitch” at decibel levels that could burst eardrums, this motley trio goes through every sexual torture imaginable after Pop brings home a 14-year-old rent boy. There is endless buggery; one character emerges from licking the boy’s bum with blood on his lips, and ultimate happiness for all results from the male prostitute’s death while being sodomized with a kitchen knife. If it wasn’t so numbingly awful, it would be a laugh riot. In London’s Royal Court, sensation was guaranteed, but Shopping and Fucking has been understandably slaughtered here. This is not Sloane Square, where simulated on-stage fellatio sends them yammering to the nearest pub. This is New York, and we’ve seen it all before. It takes more than food fights with microwaved spaghetti in a minimalist slum bedsit, or pretentious speeches on socialism and “the journey to enlightenment,” delivered by cretins who really long to be screwed with blunt instruments, to raise our eyebrows. The acting is moronic, the writing is sophomoric, and nothing works at all. Even on the level of capitalist theology, Shopping and Fucking refuses to allow us the luxury of forming our own opinions. In a case of dramaturgical wag the dog, the play opens with a man vomiting. Surely this is a job for the audience.

Sphere ‘s Seasick; Dark City Sleeps