Instinct

on June 04, 1999 by Wade Major
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   What might have been an intolerably derivative soup of scenes, themes and characters copped from far better movies, instead becomes an average, vaguely tolerable showcase for a fine cast in "Instinct," a surprisingly tame psychological thriller with few genuine surprises.
   This schizophrenic mish-mash can't seem to decide which famous model it wants to emulate. "The Shawshank Redemption," "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes," "Gorillas in the Mist," "Dances With Wolves," "The Emerald Forest," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and even Hopkins' own "Silence of the Lambs" provide the disparate parts from which director Jon Turteltaub's ("Phenomenon," "While You Were Sleeping") soulless robot has been bolted together. In several instances, sequences and visuals are duplicated shot-for-shot, calling into question not only the filmmakers' originality, but their integrity.
   As scripted by Gerald DiPego, "Instinct" is first and foremost a "shrink & patient" tale, anchored by the psychological duel between ambitious young therapist Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and anthropologist-gone-wacko Ethan Powell. Two years after vanishing in the Rwandan jungle, Gorilla expert Powell resurfaces as a savage, primal psychopath, accused of murdering two Rwandan park rangers. He is finally brought to the United States and paired with Caulder who strives to get inside his head and under his skin. In the end, however, it's Powell who takes command of their sessions, transforming them into lessons on man's inhumanity toward nature and the gorilla, whom he paints as the more compassionate, humane species.
   The problem isn't that "Instinct" lacks potential. There is, among its myriad story threads and themes, potential galore for at least four or five separate films. Mashed together as they are here, however, they compete with one another, obliterating any chance of a single satisfying emotional conclusion for the audience.
   Impressively, the performers seem unfazed by the banality of the script, relying on their own interpersonal chemistry to make the relationships work, even if the narrative framework doesn't. Though Hopkins occasionally goes over the top with his mangy, manacled madman, Gooding's restraint keeps things grounded, bringing a beguiling sensitivity and earnestness to the too-familiar scenario. Supporting contributions from Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney and George Dzundza are likewise praiseworthy.
   Technically, the film is less forgivable. An excessive use of closeups is more annoying than intense, while Stan Winston's otherwise adequate apesuit effects still fall several notches below Rick Baker's work on "Greystoke" and "Gorillas in the Mist." Mixed reaction will greet Danny Elfman's intrusive, over-romanticized score and Philippe Rousselot's photography, taste and personal preference for their work being the determining factor.    Starring Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney and George Dzundza. Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Written by Gerald DiPego. Produced by Michael Taylor and Barbara Boyle. A Buena Vista release. Psychological thriller. Rated R for some intense violent behavior. Running time: 123 min.
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