Instinct is that odd movie that is thought-provoking and worth talking about, yet is still somehow bad.
Instinct is “suggested by” Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael, in which a talking gorilla takes a human student. Using the Socratic method, he teaches the student to see humanity, materialism, development, and human culture, through the eyes of a simpler, less greedy soul. Most of the book is filled with their telepathic conversation. It’s pretty unfilmable stuff.
Gorillas in the Mist, 1988, Michael Apted, with Sigourney Weaver as Diane Fossey. A better story about what gorillas can teach us.
Medicine Man, 1993, John McTiernan, with Sean Connery instead of Anthony Hopkins as the silver-haired jungle dweller.
Naturally, Instinct diverges from the book in many ways. The “teacher” is now Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins), the anthropologist who has just been found after disappearing for two years. During that time he lived among a tribe of African gorillas. He has not spoken since his return to civilization.
The “student” is now Theo (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a psychiatrist just completing his residency. Theo hears about Ethan and is intrigued. He pulls every string he has in order to get Ethan’s case. (The “Socratic method” is now a power trip, complete with death threats.)
Screenwriter Gerald Di Pego (who also wrote Turteltaub’s Phenomenon) does a great job of introducing Theo’s character. His ingenious gamble helps a paranoid patient have a breakthrough. And yet the scene is still formulaic. Replace “psychiatrist” with “hostage negotiator” and you’d have the same opening scene as two or three cop movies in the last year.
This pattern of small pockets of greatness in an otherwise bad script is repeated throughout the movie.
A few examples:
Theo gives an emotional speech at the end. Gooding gives a top-notch performance, and the actions of his character make the speech seem appropriate. But the specific words of his speech sound so written and hollow, that it’s almost hard to take it seriously.
Much of the movie takes place in a psychiatric prison, where a random system is used for determining who gets fresh air privileges. But the system is such that the strong can attack the weak and steal the privilege, making the dysfunctional patients seem even more animal-like. The whole prison seems to be a system of dominance and submission, so that watching the movie is much like studying aggression in animals. But the characters are treated as human props. They aren’t well developed. Their few actions are motivated by the script and not by any emotional soul.
It’s hard to go wrong on the cinematography when you have a lush jungle to film. But when Anthony Hopkins breasts the utopian green hilltop, it seems like stock footage from a time-share sales pitch. It’s too easy and obvious and it doesn’t add to the character or the film.
One final point is worth noting. Danny Elfman composed the score for this film. Usually, when Elfman is involved, you can tell by listening. For the Batman movies he scored circus music into his orchestra. For A Simple Plan he had the violins play just off-key enough to make you squirm. But in Instinct, there is no quirk, no distinctive signature. It seemed like a waste of Elfman’s particular talents.
In all fairness, I found this movie to be a great conversation piece. All the sparkling good ideas were memorable enough to grab onto and examine more closely. But that’s not enough to recommend it.
Turteltaub’s last movie was Phenomenon, which was a melodramatic drop of syrup that I savored (yes, more than once.) But Instinct is somehow harder to swallow. I couldn’t tell if you if it was too sweet or too insubstantial, but somehow, the recipe just wasn’t right.