Basic Instinct (1992): Erotic Thriller Starring Sharon Stone in Top Form

So much has been written about the erotic thriller Basic Instinct prior to its release that, by the time I saw the film, it was not easy to put aside the excess baggage and evaluate the work on its own terms.

The movie has been the center of many controversies. First, the script was bought in a well-publicized bidding war for $3 million, which made insiders in Hollywood raise eyebrows: Could a script be that good? Gay rights activists who protested the film’s stereotypical portrayal of lesbians disrupted the shoot in San Francisco. Finally, the picture received an NC-17 rating, which forced its director to cut some of the sex scenes in order to get the more desirable R. How could any movie measure up to such hype

The premise of Basic Instinct is not bad. A tough cop falls for a sultry suspect in the murder of her rock star lover. In the movie’s sleek opening, a graphic sex scene involving bondage, a woman ties a man to the bedpost with a white silk scarf and murder with an ice pick. Unfortunately, from there on, the movie goes down hill rather quickly.

The film’s heroine is Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), a successful San Francisco novelist, who writes murder mysteries that “somehow” predict actual crimes. Is she guilty, using her book as the perfect alibi Or is she framed by another vicious murderer Michael Douglas plays Nick Curran, a hot-tempered cop, who investigates the case and soon becomes the subject of her new book. Other possible culprits include Catherine’s jealous lover, Roxy (Leilani Sarelle), and a police psychiatrist (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who loves Nick.

Despite the protests, I didn’t find the film to be homophobic. It struck me more as contemptuous of all women, not just bisexual and lesbian. Sneering at the audience, Basic Instinct is the kind of movie that might offend just about everybody. Most of the yarn’s characters are killers and, with the exception of Nick’s partner, the down-to-earth Gus Moran (George Dzundza), all are relentlessly nasty.

Trivializing sensuality by draining its sex scenes of any emotion, Basic Instinct inadvertently demonstrates the difference between eroticism and sensationalism. The characters seem to be perpetually in heat, but the sex scenes are so mechanical that they come across as sheer exhibitionism.

The movie’s more serious problem, however, is its lack of logic, or various implausibilities and inconsistencies as the story progresses. By the end, as the body count mounts, you don’t care, because the characters were not engaging in the first place.

In some scenes, Sharon Stone looks like an icy Grace Kelly; in others, like a haunted Kim Novak. Kelly and Novak are, of course, two of Hitchcock’s most famous and glamorous stars. The whole movie, not just its setting, is a pale imitation of Vertigo. Jerry Goldsmith’s effective score also recalls the music Bernard Herrmann had composed for Hitchcock. However, what this and other recent imitators of Hitchcock (Final Analysis, Under Suspicion) fail to grasp is that the master of suspense was much more than a technical genius; his movies resonate because of their moral issues and complex characters.

But in Basic Instinct, the characters are one-dimensional, lacking development or change, and each could be described by a single trait. Catherine, the femme fatale, is a teaser with a special taste for high-risk games and shock effects. Ironically, her bisexuality is her only intriguing characteristic. Nick is a standard flawed hero, a burned-out cop who has done it all, chain-smoking, alcohol, even cocaine.

Director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall) has shown the affinity between sex and violence more effectively in his shrewd Dutch movie, The Fourth Man. In the showy, ultra-violent Basic Instinct, however, Verhoeven’ slam-bang direction is self-conscious. It’s a cold enterprise, all style but no substance. The problem is that the film’s scintillating visuals have such impact that the story has hard time keeping up. Whenever the suspense wanes, Veroheven picks up the speed with a chase scene or another brutal murder.

Basic Instinct violates its genre’s conventions with too many false moves and an incoherent resolution; it’s never clear how seriously the film’s last image should be taken. Overproduced and underwritten, this hollow film is apotheosis of Hollywood at its greediest; Joe Eszterhas’s fee is the highest paid for a screenplay in American film history! With all the hype and unprecedented sex scenes, the bottom line is: Basic Instinct doesn’t cut the muster as a thriller; it is just another sleek potboiler.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 2

Editing: Frank J. Urioste

Score (Original): Jerry Goldsmith