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INSTINCT

by: Scott Renshaw

There was a sense of deja-vu developing long before I actually saw INSTINCT, inspired by the presentation of the basic premise in the trailers. Here was Anthony Hopkins, playing a brilliant scientist turned hair-trigger madman, turning the tables on a confident young interviewer trying to get inside his head...I couldn't help but think I'd seen this somewhere before. Then I saw the film, and it all became clear. This wasn't just a case of Hopkins flexing his Hannibal Lecter muscles again before taking on the film version of Thomas Harris' recently-published sequel to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. He was simply keeping pace with a story that slaps together characters, situations and exact shots from dozens of other films.

INSTINCT is a sloppy, derivative drama focusing on the interaction between primatologist Dr. Ethan Powell (Hopkins) and psychiatric resident Dr. Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Powell, a once-noted expert on gorillas, is now a mute inmate in a prison psychiatric ward after murdering two men in the jungle of Rwanda; Caulder, an ambitious up-and-comer, sees interviewing Powell for a compentency evaluation as his ticket to professional stardom. Powell eventually does open up to Caulder, but only because he has a message to relate. In flashback we see Powell becoming ever more connected to the family of gorillas he is studying until he is accepted as one of them. His experience leads him to a realization about the nature of human behavior in the world, a lesson he intends to impart on his impromptu pupil Caulder.

You could spend a productive day doing little more than ticking off the films from which INSTINCT cribs: ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, GORILLAS IN THE MIST, TARZAN, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and even DEAD POETS SOCIETY in addition to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Gerald DiPego's script plods along, dropping its familiar cinematic tropes like bread crumbs leading the audience to its responses. There's the psychiatrist who's really more confused than his patient, the prison guard (John Ashton) whose casual sadism is treated as a bona fide job requirement, and the collection of mental patients who become lovable comic relief. There's even a scene of confounding idiocy in which we, the knee-jerking audience, are supposed to cheer for Caulder irresponsibly whipping a room full of jailed psychotics into a rebellious frenzy. INSTINCT is so gruellingly predictable that you may be surprised momentarily when Powell's daughter (Maura Tierney) doesn't become a love interest for Caulder, until you realize that this is just a slightly different, more insulting cliche: a black man and a white woman are allowed to be "just friends."

Somehow, in the midst of so much uninspired tripe, Anthony Hopkins still manages to come through with a performance that's invigorating to watch. Sure, it's a spin on Hannibal Lecter, but it's more fiercely intelligent than anything the rest of the film can deliver. You can't help but lean forward when you hear that seductive baritone; you can't help but shudder when Caulder's neck hinges on the correct answer to a very tricky question. Hopkins makes INSTINCT better. He also makes it worse, because everything else looks even more workmanlike, notably Cuba Gooding Jr.'s performance. Gooding is all facial twitches and exposition explaining the tremendous change in his life wrought by Powell. A little economy and subtlety -- skills Hopkins demonstrates even when playing a wild man -- could have served Gooding well.

Sadly, subtlety is one thing INSTINCT has in very short supply. Even viewers prepared to sympathize with the film's fuzzy embrace of the state of nature will find this more a philosophical tract (albeit one with remarkably realistic animatronic apes by Stan Winston) than a compelling drama. We all know man bad/animals good, which makes the decision to turn the humans into cartoonish villains ev

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