Dumbest Movie Scientist Ever? Dustin Hoffman in “Sphere”


Kevin: Scientists may be the smartest people we have in real life, but more often than not they are among the dumbest people you’ll ever see in any given film. Anyone who has sat through enough movies – especially in the sci-fi and horror genres – can bet that if a boneheaded decision is made or an action is taken that completely screws up a mission or puts the entire cast or even the entire planet at risk, nine times out of ten it will usually come from the guy with the most education.

We saw this most recently in the Jake Gyllenhaal space thriller “Life” – a much better version of “Alien” than Ridley Scott’s own “Alien: Covenant” – where the head scientist’s decision to shock the alien organism back to life leads to the death of his crew mates and potentially the end of all life on Earth. Speaking of “Alien,” Tough Guy Digest has previously listed some of the many stupid decisions made by the scientists in Scott’s earlier “Prometheus,” such as taking their helmets off on an unexplored planet and approaching a snake-like organism with giant teeth and sticking their hands out like it was a lost puppy.

Meanwhile in Danny Boyle’s excellent “Sunshine,” the scientist played by Cillian Murphy nearly derails a mission to re-energize the sun and save Earth from freezing over when he decides to take a detour to investigate a possible distress signal (why do ship captains in movies always allow themselves to be talked into going off course to check out a distress signal, it never goes well!). Even worse are the scientists like Dr. Carrington in the original “Thing from Another World,” where he actively tries to interfere with any attempt to destroy the creature because he believes it can be reasoned with.

We can also find plenty of other examples of dangerously stupid scientists in movies like “Jurassic World,” “Transformers,” “The Thing (2011),” “Event Horizon,” or the recent Ridley Scott-produced “Morgan” (notice a pattern with Sir Ridley developing?). But for my money none of them will ever top the crew sent to investigate a giant spacecraft on the bottom of the ocean in the the 1998 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s “Sphere”:

As you can see from that laughably unexciting trailer, the film concerns a psychologist (Dustin Hoffman), a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson), an astrophysicist (Liev Schreiber), and a marine biologist (Sharon Stone) who are sent by Washington to investigate the origin of the ship. The fact that Stone plays a marine biologist who has also previously had a volatile sexual relationship with Dustin Hoffman should already clue you in that we are in the world of science fiction here, but once inside the spacecraft they find a large round-type thing – let’s call it a “sphere” for now I guess– that slowly (and I mean very, very slowly) drives them mad and manifests their worst fears. In Jackson’s case that happens to be squid, as he very subtly conveys in this scene:

Now you may be thinking “yeah that’s not the most original concept for a sci-fi horror film, but with that cast and Barry (“Rain Man”) Levinson directing, how bad can it be?” At which point I would know for certain that you sir have never seen “Sphere.” Whatever interesting potential the storyline holds is completely squandered, the attempts at scares are few and far between (and are usually of the “was that real or a dream?” variety), and the characters spend so much time sitting around arguing that it feels more like an episode of MTV’s “Real World” set on a spaceship.

At one point Queen Latifah does get killed by a swarm of jellyfish, so there is that.

Now of course this collection of supposedly the best and brightest minds in the country immediately fall to pieces in the face of adversity and consistently do the exact opposite of what any halfway rational person would, but as we’ve seen that’s par for the course for scientists in movies like this. But if there is one thing I’ve always remembered about this otherwise completely forgettable film, it’s this jaw-droppingly dumb question Hoffman’s character Dr. Norman Goodman asks midway through the movie during a discussion about black holes:

Just when Jackson appears to be speaking for all of us watching when he says he already knows what a black hole is so they can skip the explanation and move on, Hoffman interjects with “I don’t know what a black hole is?” Really, you don’t know what a black hole is?! Now I know he’s not as much of a scientist as the rest of the crew, but didn’t we all learn about black holes when we were like 10 years old, mainly because they sounded really cool?

I can’t tell what is more infuriating, that such a supposedly learned character would ask such a stupid question, or that the makers of “Sphere” felt they had to dumb one of their characters down in order to shoehorn in a kindergarten-level analogy about the theory of black holes for their audience. Either way, after watching that exchange you’d be shocked that these geniuses can even tie their shoelaces together, much less get to the bottom of life in the universe.

Besides we all know that Disney’s “The Black Hole” gave the definitive explanation for these tears in space, which is that they are obviously gateways to Hell or something:

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