Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr.
explore the veneer
Reviewed by Carlos deVillalvilla
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.
Anthony Hopkins plays Dr. Ethan Powell, an anthropologist who disappears while observing gorillas in Africa. When he resurfaces two years later, he is feral, homicidal, unwilling to speak and seemingly psychotic.
Cuba Gooding Jr. (who is rapidly turning into one of Hollywood's most likable leads) plays the ambitious, self-possesed and career-oriented Dr. Theo Caldwell, who lobbies to be the psychologist assessing Dr. Powel's mental status.
At first, the relationship is adversarial, but with the help of Dr. Powell's photographer daughter (Maura 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.
Also worthy of note are Donald Sutherland as a mentor figure for Dr. Caldwell, John "E.R." Aylward as a bureaucratic warden and John "Beverly Hills Cop" 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.
"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 absoloutely no insight or understanding of animals ... or humans.
Theater or Video?