The_Sphere_as_Mars via wikimedia commons

The Las Vegas Sphere: A Placeless Object in a Placeless City

Since I don’t gamble, my favorite parlor game when I visit Las Vegas is to imagine the next themed hotel-casino that MGM or Sands is going to dream up. The Katmandu? The Bali? The Zanzibar? The Tijuana? The Mars? (Probably not The Tijuana.) 

In fact, the latest spectacle does not rely on a theme—on the type of simulacrum that Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour celebrated more than 50 years ago. The latest spectacle is just that—spectacle. Pure, crystalline spectacle. 

The Sphere is, possibly, the most aggressively placeless structure ever built. For being a truly monumental object, its essence—a pure geometric shape—represents entirely nothing. And yet, based on its size, expense, and audacity, it could exist nowhere but Las Vegas. 

From the outside, the Sphere stays true to its name. (Actually, it prefers to be called simply “Sphere,” which sounds weird and pretentious.) It is nothing if not spherical. At 516 feet wide and 336 feet tall, it’s covered in 1.2 million LEDs (each “the size of a hockey puck”) that are programmed to turn the sphere into advertisements, graphic art, and other eye-catching animations to compete with the neon wonderland of the Strip. Sometimes it portrays inoffensive swirls; other times it’s been a creepy eyeball. Pretty much anything that is spherical can be portrayed on the Sphere. (I’m waiting for a cantaloupe.) 

All of this corporate whimsy comes courtesy of Madison Square Garden Entertainment, the New York City-based sports and entertainment conglomerate owned by unseemly billionaire James Dolan (recently accused of sexual assault). 

Designed by venerable arena experts Populous, the Sphere’s auditorium combines one-half of the seating bowl of an arena with two-thirds of the ceiling of a planetarium. With a capacity of  17,500, the Sphere’s seating bowl rises dramatically from floor level to rafters. Except, there are no rafters. The interior sphere appears smooth and, in ambient light, looks like nothing at all. Its main feature is a dramatically steep pitch, giving each seat an unobscured view of the entire interior. And what, exactly, will we be looking at? We’ll get to that in a moment. 

The Sphere’s lobby is structured like that of a modern arena. At ground level, a large concourse features the usual array of snack bars and a multi story atrium. Impressively long escalators lead to three mezzanine levels, each with their own concourses and hospitality gestures. The Sphere is programmed, though, to keep visitors on the ground level as long as possible. Indeed, milling around is billed as part of the “experience.” 

And what a pathetic experience it is. The Sphere fancies itself not just as an entertainment venue but also a portal into the future. Our future, of course, involves robots. The floor displays include a handful of decidedly uncharismatic robots that are supposedly controlled by artificial intelligence. Visitors who approach them are enlightened with commentary in which the robots tell them about what color hat they’re wearing or what’s printed on their t-shirt. (Note: This is basic stuff by 2024 standards.) One particularly awkward display involves an usher playing invisible musical instruments—air guitar, air saxophone, air keyboard, etc.—and then the robot regurgitates. Hanging some 50 feet above the floor, there’s a hologram of an idealized human figure—an A.I. Vitruvian man. 

Rather than be inspired about our bold future, these animatronics resemble nothing so much as Munch’s Make-Believe Bank at Chuck-E-Cheese. 

Pretty much everything in and around the Sphere that does not glow with technicolor brilliance is, instead, a shade of grey. Grey walls. Grey floors. Grey ceilings. The seats are black. Accent lighting of purples and blues along the escalators and mezzanine railings provides pretty much the only adornment. It almost feels like they ran out of money for interior design, which, given the Sphere’s price tag ($2.3 billion, $1.2 billion over the original budget), might actually be true. 

The Sphere, in its “Moon” configuration.


How literal is the Sphere? Its logo—found throughout the building and on its for-sale merchandise—is, well, a sphere. Or, rather, a disc. It’s not exactly the most exciting graphic to put on a sweatshirt. But, at least it’s honest. 

The most important thing to know about the Sphere is that showtimes are not what they seem. The doors open at the posted times; curtain is not for another hour. While you mill around the robots and buy snacks, monitors inform you of the number of minutes until “the next phase of your journey begins,” making the Sphere feel slightly like a new-age crematorium.  

My main event was, alas, not U2, who are in the midst of a 40-show run to inaugurate the Sphere, nor Phish, which is scheduled for April. Instead, I watched the Sphere’s standard attraction, “Postcard from Earth,” an hourlong quasi-documentary celebrating the wonders of nature and the foibles of humanity. 

“Postcard” draws equally from nature documentaries like Living Planet and from stock footage of cities and commerce that you’ve seen in AT&T commercials. It opens and closes with an embarrassing fictional frame, in which all of humanity has evacuated Earth and been sent to colonize planets in other solar systems (because, as we find out, our planet needs to recuperate from the beating we have inflicted upon it). The movie we’re watching is sort of an ecological and anthropological Rosetta Stone, to help the colonists remember from whence they hail. 

These implanted memories consist of predictable, but spectacular, images of as much natural glory as you care to imagine: mountain peaks, dramatic canyons, kelp forests, bejeweled insects, elephants, monkeys, whales, and much more. Having established nature’s wonders, the film shifts to churches, temples, mosques, downtown street corners, airports, quarries, ancient ruins, and other human-inflicted scars. 

All of this is portrayed on the concave interior of the Sphere. The “screen” fills essentially your entire field of vision—at 160,000 square-feet and in 16K resolution. A relatively small portion of the Sphere’s screen is a conventional projection screen; the rest of the bowl, extending up to the ceiling, consists of LEDs. Whereas fans in an arena focus on a relatively small point on the floor, Spheregoers are surrounded by images. 

The Sphere outdoes IMAX—its closest and most obvious competitor—by a fair margin. It seems like a more spectacular and more satisfying experience than the alienating, disorienting experience that virtual reality headsets attempt to provide. Aerial landscape shots feel like flying. Giraffes grow to five times their actual height. Whales appear at scale. Chameleons and spiders expand to unthinkable proportions. All in shocking clarity, with minimal distortion, even at the edges, where the image runs into the seating bowl. 

The desert Southwest features prominently in “Postcard,” including scenes at Arches National Park, the Grand Canyon, and—just a few miles away from Vegas—Lake Mead. In the chapter describing how humanity had paved over the earth and exploited its resources, I was hoping that the camera would bring us into the city, perhaps to include an exterior shot of the Sphere itself. But, no such luck. Far be it for Vegas to break the fourth wall. Especially in a building that doesn’t have walls.  

The Sphere is big, but it’s not necessarily immersive. When the lights go down, the structure does not melt into the ether, leaving only images and sound, any more than a conventional movie theater does. Enjoyment still depends on suspension of disbelief. (Which, in turn, depends on having something worth watching.) 

U2’s Bono performing at the Sphere.


In some ways, true immersion is an illusion, even—and especially—in the Sphere. A conventional movie draws the eye more or less to the middle of the screen. If the movie is any good, it keeps it there for two hours. The “immersion” is emotional, not technological. In the Sphere, though, the images matter far more than story or character. The Sphere begs viewers to look around, to take in every inch of the screen. That leads you to the forest canopy overhead, to the majestic tree trunks rising to the heavens, to the critters on the ground, scurrying left and right. Taking in all of this requires looking around. The more you look around, the more aware of the auditorium you become. (This may feel different for live acts, which do have focal points and, probably, pack far greater emotional punches.)

The Sphere’s sound system matches its visuals. Sounds are remarkably clear but not overly loud. And, they’re not just heard. They are felt, through haptic technology embedded in the seats. Shocks and rumbles, such as the launching of spaceships and the footfalls of elephants, send tremors throughout the seating bowl. It’s a little corny, but effective. 

The trouble with “Postcard” is that it is accompanied by galactically insipid narration. We’re subjected to profundities along the lines of “our mother nurtured us and now she is dying” and “humans ruined their own home.” Apparently, Darren Aronofsky, known for award-winning highbrow feature films such as Black Swan and The Wrestler, wants us to believe that people in the distant future destroyed both the planet and their capacity for eloquence. 

Rarely does a physical structure bear on the future of an entire media genre. The Sphere’s technology is as limiting as it is spectacular. Its enormity requires a certain type of movie. It has to be visually stunning, and, even if it has conventional narrative elements like plots, characters, and subtext, it can’t be so intimate that it would be better off in a conventional theater. Barbie or Oppenheimer: maybe. Top Gun Maverick: yes, please. Requiem for a Dream: pass.  

Basically, any subject matter that plays well on IMAX can probably work at the Sphere. That means that more nature documentaries are surely on the way. In reality, the Sphere presents unfathomable opportunities for artists. But, except for art directors who work on backdrops for live acts, it’s hard to imagine the Sphere giving up its screen to mere artists or giving them the funds to create anything worthwhile. But, now that the structure exists, they’re going to have to fill it with something. 

Whatever that “something” may be, it will be in excruciatingly limited release—quite the opposite of the way all other forms of filmed entertainment are going. A proposed Sphere in London ran into opposition from, among others, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who was understandably concerned about light pollution. MSG recently withdrew its proposal. Among proposals for South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi, only Abu Dhabi appears remotely likely. So, despite the monumental expense required to produce Sphere-compatible films, they will, for the foreseeable future, be shown on exactly one screen, to exactly one type of audience. That audience is the global Everyman that is the Las Vegas visitor. So, Sphere Studios, the filmmaking entity set up to create programming for its namesake, clearly has its work cut out for it. 

It’s worth noting that, before the rise of the Vegas aesthetic that captivated and bemused Venturi et. al., movie theaters had co-opted culture-specific design many decades before. Ersatz, culturally insensitive movie palaces like Hollywood’s Chinese Theater and Egyptian Theater presaged ersatz, culturally insensitive hotel-casinos like The Venetian, Paris Las Vegas, and Mandalay Bay by decades. That’s what makes the Sphere’s starkness so radical. It flouts decades of Vegas tradition and Hollywood tradition. 

Even so, its honesty is refreshing. In one blow, it lays bare the silliness of Vegas’ fake places. It reminds us that, no matter how much money you spend, all the fake Eiffel Towers in the world won’t have the charm of a single cobblestone in the Marais. In that sense, the Sphere gives Vegas a new dimension, but it also forces visitors to confront the artifice of the whole Vegas enterprise. Meanwhile, though it’s visible from miles away, the Sphere, like pretty much everything else along the Las Vegas Strip, does not even try to contribute to an urban fabric. Walkability, sense of place, and local culture are, as ever, absent in a city more closely wedded to consumerism than probably any other in the world. 

The Sphere is simultaneously both duck and decorated shed. It’s a duck because it’s a huge object that celebrates its physical presence. It’s a decorated shed because it exists purely for what can be portrayed on it. It is a world unto itself. We are, as ever, learning from Las Vegas. 

All images via Wikimedia Commons.


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