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Dingy and drear to look at, filled with poorly staged comic business enacted by an uncharismatic, anonymous-looking star, Senseless also has the ill-luck to be titled with its most fitting description.

Marlon Wayans plays Darryl Witherspoon, an ambitious but luckless economics student at tony Stratford University. He works various menial jobs to pay bills for his mother and four siblings at home, stiffing his own landlord in the process, and is trying desperately to land the one coveted opening as junior analyst at a white-shoe Wall Street brokerage. Wiped out from overwork and disheartened by the snide taunts of classmate Scott Thorpe (David Spade, the snidest of taunters), Darryl sells every bodily fluid he’s got before stumbling on a well-paying stint as a human guinea pig. Creepy university scientist Dr. Wheedon (Brad Dourif—told you he was creepy) will pay a willing student $3,000 to inject himself with a Flubber-green substance daily, thereby sharpening all of the subject’s senses and making him a superhuman. Just don’t exceed the dosage…

The bare bones of this plot are solid enough: Once he learns to control them, Darryl uses his newfound powers to check out booty at telescope range, gain instant membership to a snotty fraternity, and play wondergoalie for the Stratford hockey team. Most importantly, he wows the finance guys at a celebratory dinner (for the five kids who made the semifinal cut) where he’s working as a waiter. On the day of a crucial interview, he takes a double dose and begins to lose his senses, only one at a time, but never for long and always unpredictably.

A deft and expressive comic actor could do wonders with such a script, but this Wayans—will the world ever run out of Wayanses?—is pleasant but pudding-faced, and while funny enough in the really choice set pieces—the one where the rectal-itching side effect kicks in, for example—he’s a less than riveting presence. The scenes that work best for him are the ones with the lovely Tamara Taylor as his pixie-haired love interest; he’s sweetly goofy when stumbling over an introduction and affectingly devastated when he messes it up. Romantic second lead, maybe; comic genius, no.

But director Penelope Spheeris is most guilty in queering this ostensibly keen pitch. She can’t find anything for the subsidiary characters to do except be eccentric; everyone seems to be in a different movie. She shifts tones thoughtlessly, giving Darryl appropriately raging paranoia at the effects of his overdose, then allowing him to forget all about them and put himself in situations where he can handily act the fool. Scenes with Darryl’s freaky pierced roommate (Matthew Lillard, confused but real game) lose steam at their punch lines, and the animosity between Scott and Darryl isn’t funny enough to justify the expediency with which they’re thrown together on virtually every occasion. (How small is this school?) The always-punchable Spade drips with his usual venom, stacking the deck in favor of his adversary, but when Scott jeers at Darryl for being out of his league, it seems to be true. Only by cheating does Darryl evince any extraordinary knowledge of economics.

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Worst of all, there’s a queasy streak of racism at the heart of the big gags. Darryl is the stereotypical ghetto scholarship kid working in a hairnet at the cafeteria and spiking garbage on the school grounds. His pre-powers stint as a hockey goalie results in a scene in which rows of masked and padded white guys pelt him relentlessly with pucks while he flops and gibbers on the ice. Senseless is like the anti-Good Will Hunting: Darryl’s yearning for team and fraternity membership and other pallid trappings of mainstream belonging aren’t the soul-numbing dead ends they represent for a working-class slob-with-a-soul like Will; they’re the black underclass’s brass ring.

Senseless never pretends to be more than an unambitious comedy (although it’s way less ambitious than it should be), but the experiment itself brings up hideous echoes of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Here a black man is willing to be shot up with a dangerous serum for money. When he hears the amount, Darryl double-takes: “You can inject me with the Ebola virus!” he shouts merrily. “For $3,000, I’ll be your little Outbreak boy!” Even the least ambitious off-season comedy shouldn’t ask the audience to choose between laughing and squirming.

It has been open for only a week, but Sphere is so notoriously disliked that people who haven’t seen it screw up their faces at its mere mention: “Eeew, how awful is it?” It’s kinda good, actually.

The problem with Barry Levinson’s talky and overlong underwater/outer space sci-fi thriller is mostly in its timing. Fed up with such softy-puffy exercises in the limits of human spiritual possibility, critics especially (audiences too, no doubt, although they don’t have to see everything) are bristling at another lost-Contact, near-Deep Rising, and almost-Alien 4. And Dustin Hoffman made such a monkey of himself in the aforementioned Outbreak; do we really want to see him play the heroic psychologist, flopping about an alien craft in a wet suit?

It turns out there are more horrible sights (every second of Contact qualifies); Levinson’s script is clever and zingy, its characters unclichéd, and the mystery of the big round thing at the center of what would appear to be another planet’s spaceship consistently compelling.

Hoffman plays psychologist Norman Goodman, summoned to be part of a team studying a large sunken craft of unknown origin. He has written a speculative manual on the government’s best response in case of alien attack, and it is his guidelines that determine the team: Harry Adams, a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson); Beth Halperin, a biochemist with loose mental hinges (Sharon Stone); and Ted Fielding, a prickly astrophysicist (Liev Schreiber). Whether Goodman’s report specifically insists that the male team members have pleasant Anglo-Saxon names the film does not say, although the group’s makeup is predicated on a nice joke out of Flight of the Phoenix.

Isolated in their watery habitat, the members of the group bicker and act out among themselves—they all seem to have a history with each other, and their neurotic interplay crackles, although the leaden context makes all this verbal sparkle seem superfluous. But as each one tries to figure out what the titular sphere is up to, his or her neurotic proclivities actually become more pronounced. Every few minutes they discover something new and surprising about the ship and the big gold disco globe it carries; on the bodily fluids index, Sphere is no Titanic (two big weeps, no bathroom trips), but it’s got enough suspense and a fast clip of new information to keep you in your seat.

In the end, all the self-protective yammering among the characters turns out not to be meaningless. Any script co-written by chattersmith Paul Attanasio is going to have some stake in the payoff of zippy conversation, although he is too fond of cleverness (these guys brought chervil 10,000 feet down?) at the expense of a watertight plot (why is no one around when Harry wakes from his coma?). The refreshingly sour explanation may be why Sphere is so universally disdained. It isn’t a particularly flattering or spiritually uplifting vision of the human race’s future prospects.

Instead, it claims that whatever gifts other or later civilizations may hold, whatever possibilities of improving mankind and the universe are offered us, we are too stupid, petty, selfish, and vindictive to handle them. Sphere is having none of the highly advanced and dazzlingly hospitable interstellar swaps of other movie scenarios, which, leaving aside the model of rapacious eliminator, are most comfortable seeing aliens as superintelligent stuffed teddies, soothers of human egos, and benevolent big-headed beings. Sphere is the first movie of its kind to ask the question: If aliens are so smart, why would they want to contact us?CP