Instinct

I would love to have sat in on the pitch meeting for “Instinct.” “It’s ‘Silence of the Lambs’ meets ‘Gorillas in the Mist.'” Been there, done that. “I’m not done. We’ll also toss in bits and pieces of ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ and ‘Mighty Joe Young.'” What else do you have? “Did I mention that it takes place in a prison just like ‘The Shawshank Redemption?'” I wonder how many references the writer had to toss out in order to get a green light.


That’s the problem with “Instinct.” It feels, looks and sounds like a lot of other great movies. The conceit is that by gathering bits and pieces of other great movies the filmmaker’s behind “Instinct” believe that they too have made a great movie.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. “Instinct” is a silly collage of one-dimensional characters and cliched dialogue, all rolled into a pretty package. It’s always tough to watch good talent wasted, but what Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr. do here is embarrassing.

They don’t get much help from director John Turteltaub, a director who knows how to manipulate an audience (“Phenomenon”). Unfortunately, Turteltaub doesn’t know when and how much to use this talent, as “Instinct” is one of the worst examples of manipulation I have recently seen on the big screen.

Turteltaub is wise not to trust the material to deliver the goods, so he tweaks up the volume until it’s almost unbearable. Points aren’t just driven home, they’re escorted by Danny Elfman’s holy score that sounds like it was ripped note for note out of “The Amityville Horror.”

The real problem with the film lies in Gerald DiPego’s script (only slightly influenced by Daniel Quinn’s fascinating novel “Ishmael”), which doesn’t just dish up tired concepts and familiar themes, it actually goes looking for them. Obviously Dipego has never met a film he couldn’t rip off. Some writers do this with finesse. DiPego’s emperor has no clothes, and we’re the ones being forced to look at this naked beast, warts and all.

Anthony Hopkins, who could have phoned the performance in, stars as celebrated anthropologist Ethan Powell, who mysteriously disappeared for two years while researching the lowland Gorillas. As the film begins, Powell, looking like a modern day Robinson Crusoe, is being escorted from an African prison to the United States after being convicted of killing two African game wardens. At this point, we don’t know what triggered Powell’s behavior.

That is left up to eager psychology student Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr., so out of his league here), who has convinced his professor, Ben Hillard, to allow him to tackle the high profile case. Right. Like a psychology professor is going to pass on an opportunity that lends itself to a book and plenty of media coverage. In real life, Hillard would have shut Caulder down before he even broached the subject, but since Cuba Gooding Jr. is the co-star of the film, he’s given the case with the professor’s blessings.

Caulder first meets Powell at the Harmony Bay Correctional Facility, one of those prison hell holes where the guards are either beating the prisoners or turning their backs while they brutalize each other. Powell has been assigned to a special wing for the criminally insane, where he is over medicated and treated like a monster.

It doesn’t take Caulder long to realize that in order to reach Powell, who hasn’t spoken since his arrest, he needs to treat him with civility. That means breaking prison protocol and butting heads with prison warden Keefer (John Aylward, on leave from “E.R.”) and head guard Dacks (John Ashton, doing whatever it takes to become a cliche).

It’s not long before Caulder has Powell talking, and relating his intervention with the gorillas. Powell calls it a miracle (he didn’t become one of them, but they accepted him), but nothing director Turtletaub shows us lives up to that claim. Powell merely becomes a muted observer, mimicking their behavior but never becoming one of the family. It’s not so much a miracle as it is a National Geographic cover.

Slowly but surely, Caulder unleashes the beast hiding inside Powell, whose reasons for killing the game wardens doesn’t come until the end of the film, but is telegraphed from the first frame. There’s no suspense here, even when Powell torments poor Caulder with his brilliance and super human strength. S scene where Powell gets the upper hand over Caulder during an interrogation is so contrived and unbelievable you want to run screaming from the theater.

When the film doesn’t insult you, it provides immense amount of entertainment for film trivia buffs. Sit back and try and guess which films DiPego and Turtletaub have ripped off in the name of art. The whole prison sequence just reeks of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and even has one of those obligatory defiance scenes where the prisoners (patients) decide to end a particularly mean spirited card game.

The filmmaker’s seem to intent on making nice-nice at the end of the film that they pile on one plot contrivance after another so everyone can go home happy. This is not the film I paid to see. The previews made “Instinct” look like a top notch thriller. Instead, it’s just another notch on the bedpost of high concept.

Hopkins is such a fine actor you wonder what he is doing here. It’s “Hannibal Lechter” lite, all posture and no menace. Gooding Jr. seems too lightweight for such fare, trying hard to make an impression but never accomplishing the task. Poor Donald Sutherland. He’s played the wise mentor so many times you would think it was his night job.

The rest of the cast struggles with their paper-thin roles, including Maura Tierney as Powell’s daughter who wants her father back, and George Dzundza (larger than Brando here) as the prison’s make-do doctor who becomes inspired by Caulder’s techniques.

The real problem with the film is that all of these elements are so carefully orchestrated to illicit a reaction that nothing seems spontaneous. Everything in the film feels fake. The speeches are just that, and don’t serve any other purpose than to fulfill the star’s quota of lines in the script.

Technically, “Instinct” is on the money, with gorgeous photography by Philippe Rousselot and excellent character effects by Stan Winston (read gorilla suits). Unfortunately, all is for naught, as “Instinct” makes a monkey out of its cast, film makers, and ultimately, the audience.

“INSTINCT”: MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DOO-DOO

INSTINCT

Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, George Dzundza, John Ashton, John Aylward in a film directed by John Turtletaub. Rated R. 123 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $3



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