Should I Watch..? 'Basic Instinct'
What's the big deal?
Basic Instinct is a notorious erotic thriller film released in 1992 and was directed by Paul Verhoeven. Starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, the movie sees a disgraced cop falling for the prime suspect in a brutal murder case, a beautiful writer whose latest book eerily mimics the circumstances of the killing. The movie generated considerable controversy at the time for its graphic depictions of sex and violence as well as pandering to Hollywood stereotypes regarding gay and lesbian characters. It made an instant star of Stone and forms the second part of a perceived trilogy of films starring Douglas that featured explicit sex scenes with Fatal Attraction and Disclosure. Despite a fairly mixed reception from critics, the film was a smash hit at the box office with global takings just under $353 million. It would be followed by a sequel, Basic Instinct 2, in 2006 but the film was a critical and commercial failure.
What's it about?
San Francisco detective Nick Curran is called out to the home of retired rock star Johnny Boz who appears to have been stabbed to death with an ice-pick whilst having sex with a mysterious blonde woman. Their chief suspect, bisexual novelist Catherine Tramell, has just published a book that describes the murder almost exactly which cause Nick to believe that she is either the killer or someone is trying to frame her. Away from the investigation, Nick is conducting a torrid relationship with police psychologist Beth Garner who he attends counselling with after accidentally shooting two tourists while high on cocaine.
Nick discovers that Catherine's latest book concerns a cop who falls for the wrong woman and despite his reservations, he continues to follow Catherine. Discovering her relationship with girlfriend Roxy and a penchant for befriending murderers, Nick slowly begins questioning whether Catherine really did it or whether he has another motive for clearing her name...
Det. Nick Curran
Dr. Beth Garner
Det. Gus Moran
Lt. Philip Walker
Rozanne "Roxy" Hardy
Release Date (UK)
8th May, 1992
Drama, Erotic, Mystery, Thriller
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film Editing, Best Original Score
Worst Actor (Douglas), Worst New Star (Stone), Worst Supporting Actress (Tripplehorn)
What's to like?
In the pantheon of deadly femme fatales, Catherine Tramell must surely sit upon the throne ruling over the others. Stone's blistering portrayal of the most overtly sexual predator in cinema is every bit as aggressive and enjoyable as it was ground-breaking. The film has become synonymous with explicit sex scenes, unrepentant nudity and the lurid excesses Verhoeven love to fill his films with and for good reason. Stone's performance is so good, it's worth watching the film for her alone.
Opposite, Douglas does as well as he usually does playing cops with a troubled past although he clearly can't figure out what's going on as quickly as we can. The narrative does get somewhat confused towards the end but Douglas does a decent enough job of holding our interest while Stone slinks back into the shadows. The trouble is, the cat-and-mouse relationship between Curran and Tramell is far more interesting than the case itself and while the movie focuses on this tense chemistry between them, it neglects to focus on what happened to poor old Johnny Boz. In addition to the leads, the film works hard to maintain a noir-ish atmosphere despite the wild excesses of the Nineties. Unlike its clueless sequel, you can never accuse Basic Instinct of being boring to watch whether you like cars racing along the Pacific Highway, midnight pursuits with guns drawn or Stone's boobs bouncing all over the place.
- There is some confusion regarding the infamous leg-crossing scene. Stone was under the impression that she wouldn't flash the camera as per Verhoeven's instruction but only discovered that she did at the film's premier, casuing her to slap him and storm out. Verhoeven claims that Stone knew exactly what he had intended to shoot and agreed to it.
- By contrast, Douglas refused to be shot full-frontal or let his role be bisexual. It's estimated his fee for the film was $15 million while Stone was paid just $500'000.
- A major plot-hole involves DNA which would have cleared up the identity of the murderer fairly quickly. Writer Eszterhas apologised for this plot-hole as well as the film's glamorising of smoking when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2000.
What's to like?
Even before the #MeToo movement began, the film was already looking somewhat problematic. The script has the odd flash of inspiration but is generally muddled, concentrating too much on Tramell and not enough on the actual murder case. In fact, I don't recall anyone mentioning Boz's name during the final scenes so obviously the police had forgotten about him. And despite Tramell pushing the boundaries for female characters, Curran is a fairly unlikeable lead and actually pretty dull in comparison. Douglas can play troubled cops even if he was in a coma and I got the sense that he was never really that interested in the project. I stopped caring about Curran after the uncomfortable scene between him and Beth.
Strip away all the sordid details and Basic Instinct is actually a pretty forgettable thriller, feeling extremely derivative and exploitative. The aforementioned DNA plot-hole is almost unforgivable these days and the disco scene featuring Stone and Douglas feels a touch awkward - Douglas looks like he's gone there to pick up his daughter! The whole thing feels like a celluloid wet dream, a twisted teenage fantasy somehow turned into a movie and watching it with other people can be a bit uncomfortable. It isn't a bad film, as such. It's just been parodied and imitated so often that the original now looks watered down.
Should I watch it?
Against other erotic thrillers, Basic Instinct stands up pretty well by actually having a decent couple of leads. But these days, the movie feels illicit and grubby instead of glamorous and exciting. It has been undone by its own reputation and has turned a fairly ordinary cop thriller into a soft-porn skin flick. If the more exploitative elements had been toned down, this might have helped the narrative stay on track but then again, would we still be talking about the film today if it had?
Great For: pause buttons, pubescent boys, Stone's career
Not So Great For: watching with your parents, the anti-smoking lobby, gay protesters
What else should I watch?
Basic Instinct might not have been the first but it became the poster-child for numerous erotic thrillers that continually popped up in the Nineties, each one hoping to top it with their own brand of sensationalism. Eszterhas tried again with the eerily similar Sliver which didn't go down that well despite Sharon Stone appearing nude again and the ridiculous Showgirls, a film so terrible that it scooped a then-record seven Razzie awards. Other efforts to avoid include the career-killing Jade which sent David Caruso back to TV cop dramas and the woeful Striptease which stopped Demi Moore's ascent to the A-list in its tracks.
While this film earned its dubious place in cinema history, Basic Instinct 2 earned a very different sort of infamy. Stone reprised as Tramell, who has relocated to London and gotten involved with the possible murder of a footballer. David Morrissey plays a police psychologist sent to assess her and sure enough, she begins to fall for her kinky, care-free lifestyle. Without Verhoeven's direction or Eszterhas writing the script, the film had spent far too long in development hell and was a complete bust when it was eventually released. Instead of feeling dirty for watching it, I just felt annoyed instead.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox