Basic Instinct (United States, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In my original, unpublished review of Basic Instinct (dated March 21, 1992), I wrote the following: "There's a fine line between eroticism and exploitation, and Basic Instinct treads it, using nudity, sex, and violence to cover up the limitations of the story. Nevertheless, it delivers what it promises: a fast-moving, often-implausible thriller that glories in the lurid and the bloody." In fact, Basic Instinct resembles nothing more than one of those Z-grade soft core thrillers that Cinemax seems to have an endless supply of. But the big difference between those movies and this one is easy to identify. Instead of employing obscure actors and craftsman, Basic Instinct has a credit list that's A-list from top to bottom: actors Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop), scribe Joe Eszterhas (Jagged Edge), cinematographer Jan De Bont (Die Hard), and composer Jerry Goldsmith.

The film's problems begin with its story, which is constructed with relentless manipulation in mind. It never plays fair with the audience, from the opening scene (in which a naked blond woman - whose features are obscured by her hair - is shown ice picking someone to death) to the final shot. As Basic Instinct wraps, many viewers will experience a sense of having been cheated, and the depth of the film's deception becomes evident upon deconstruction. Joe Eszterhas' screenplay doesn't make sense, and he doesn't bother to hide this fact. In the end, Basic Instinct teases and screws us with the same efficiency that the film's femme fatale handles the protagonist.

SFPD Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and his partner, Gus (George Dzundza), have been called in to investigate the brutal murder of a has-been rock star. The chief suspect is his favorite sex partner, author Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). Tramell was seen with the victim on the night of his demise, and the method of the slaying mimics a death in one of her murder mysteries. For Nick, who is under investigation by Internal Affairs for the accidental shooting of two tourists, Catherine is like a drug. He believes she's guilty, but he's addicted to her. Even the warnings of his former lover and current psychologist, Dr. Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), can't keep him away.

Is Catherine guilty or has she been framed? This is the central mystery of Basic Instinct, and the film never solves it. Instead, Estzerhas and Paul Verhoeven offer a resolution that can be seen as confirming either possibility. Such a conclusion might work in a more psychologically challenging picture, but Basic Instinct is an exploitation genre entry through-and-through. An ambiguous conclusion in these circumstances leads to frustration. It makes the filmmakers come across as calculating charlatans using ticket buyers for their dupes.

Basic Instinct didn't launch Sharon Stone's career, but it catapulted her to the next level. Stone gambled that, by showing everything (although she claims the infamous crotch shot was filmed without her "consent"), she would end up on the fast track. It worked. Stone became a hot commodity, although it's worth noting that only the films in which she had nude scenes met with box office success. Her ability as an actress became eclipsed by her physical attributes. And she is a good actress; her performance in Basic Instinct is strong. Catherine is the picture's sole interesting character, and that's in part because of Stone's portrayal.

With Stone stealing center stage, top billed Michael Douglas was unintentionally forced into a supporting role. (There's no way Douglas' butt shots could compare to what Stone exhibited.) He plays the stale standby of the maverick cop with weaknesses for drink, drugs, cigarettes, and women. George Dzundza is okay in the clich├ęd partner part, although there's nothing out of the ordinary about this character. Jeanne Tripplehorn is awful as Beth Garner, although part of this is no doubt due to the writing. Denise Richards was more convincing as a nuclear physicist in one of the James Bond movies.

The dialogue is laughably cheesy throughout, but perhaps that's part of Basic Instinct's appeal. In fact, there are times when the film comes close to achieving a status where it's so bad it becomes entertaining. And there's plenty of gore and T&A. The final theatrical edit came so close to an NC-17 that it had to be cut and re-submitted several times before a hard R was granted. Whether or not the film works depends largely on expectations. If you're looking for an intelligent thriller with real characters, Basic Instinct will seem like a fraud. If, on the other hand, you don't care whether the story makes sense and all you're in search of are cheap thrills and naked bodies, the movie delivers. Then again, so does a lot of Cinemax's late night programming.

Basic Instinct (United States, 1992)

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Leilani Sarell
Screenplay: Joe Eszterhas
Cinematography: Jan De Bont
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 1992-03-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Violence, Nudity, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1