(1999) Thriller (Touchstone) Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, George Dzundza, John Ashton, John Aylward, Thomas Q. Morris, Doug Spinuzza, Paul Bates, Kim Ingram, Paul Collins, Louanne Stephens. Directed by Jon Turtletaub
What makes a human being? What separates us from the animals? And are we necessarily better off that way? Tough questions, any one of which would make a pretty fascinating movie. Instinct tries to tackle all three and winds up satisfactorily addressing none. However, it does make for a fine character study.
Dr. Ethan Powell (Hopkins), a noted anthropologist, disappears while observing gorillas on a scientific expedition to Africa. When he resurfaces two years later, he is feral, homicidal, unwilling to speak and seemingly psychotic. No amount of therapy seems to be able to help, but Dr. Theo Caldwell (Gooding), a self-possessed and career-oriented psychologist with bigger ambitions, lobbies to assess Dr. Powell’s mental status and wins the job.
At first, the relationship is adversarial, but with the help of Dr. Powell’s photographer daughter Lynn (Tierney), Dr. Caldwell begins to make progress, getting the heretofore silent anthropologist speaking and finally the two begin to teach each other about life, humanity and everything else important, as we find out what really happened in Africa. Meanwhile, the brutal conditions in the prison Dr. Powell is residing in threaten that progress completely.
The cast here is uniformly fine, with Hopkins – perhaps the best pure actor in Hollywood today – giving a positively eerie performance. Gooding is likable enough, able to project the vulnerability beneath the self-confident veneer of the ambitious psychologist. Also worthy of note are Donald Sutherland as a mentor figure for Dr. Caldwell, John Aylward as a bureaucratic warden and John Ashton as a sadistic guard.
The problem with Instinct is that for all its good intentions, it really doesn’t explore the underlying questions with anything resembling depth. Dr. Caldwell’s personal transformation is the focus here, but it seems a bit too pat. Powell’s own change of heart is a bit too abrupt and is never really explained much. It’s along the lines of “You need to see your daughter.” “I don’t want to.” “Why not?” “OK, OK, stop hassling me, you win, I’ll see her.” You get the drift. It’s like arriving at the destination without taking the journey – it may be more efficient, but then you miss the framework. Even the Mona Lisa needs a frame.
Instinct is all about veneer and the true person that dwells beneath. Civilization, according to the filmmakers, is a corrupt expression of our own vanity and greed, and should be excised. It ennobles the animal kingdom to almost preposterous dimensions. The truth about critters, folks, is that they live in the here and now, and have no other frame of reference beyond that. No right and wrong. The gorillas that Dr. Powell studies so rapturously would not hesitate in real life to tear the throat out of any crybaby scholar who violated their territory as thoroughly as he does.
Is the forest safer than an American city, as Dr. Powell suggests? Perhaps it is. But I guarantee you that the jungle has its own dangers that will take your life just as ruthlessly. Instinct posits that humans more in touch with their animal side are better for that connection may play well at PETA benefits, but shows absolutely no insight or understanding of animals…or humans.
WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Gooding and Hopkins. Interesting subject matter.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Takes shortcuts. Lacks understanding.
FAMILY MATTERS: Hopkins’ Dr. Powell exhibits intensely violent behavior and the subject matter might be a little much for the kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dr. Powell was originally offered to Sean Connery who declined it.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34.1M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Congo
FINAL RATING: 5/10