Instinct

instinct-1999-05-gPerhaps I am not the ideal audience for Instinct. Such heavy message movies are meant to be inspirational and uplifting, but they mostly just make me angry — they inspire me to uplift myself from the theater seat and head for the exit. Instinct is yet another spiritual weepie that decries human follies and yet puts a happy face on it all. It serves up chicken soup for the soul while pretending that the soup isn’t made of dead chickens.

The movie runs on a low-powered, inoffensive Hollywood engine — the same one that kept Phenomenon chugging all the way to the bank. I mention that 1996 John Travolta weepie because it, likeInstinct, was directed by Jon Turteltaub and written by Gerald Di Pego. Both movies stack the deck for themselves by taking a star most people like and casting him as an ordinary guy with unusual passions who is persecuted, poked, and prodded for his troubles. These men are better than you and me, you see; they are in tune with nature, the cosmos, and movie clichés.

In Instinct, the misunderstood saint is Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Ethan Powell, an anthropologist who lived among the gorillas in the African wild for two years. At some point, Powell went bonkers, killing two men and seriously wounding three others. The movie somberly works up to the big revelation (What drove him to murder?) as if we couldn’t already guess, as if we hadn’t seen Gorillas in the Mist. I guess Dr. Theo Calder (Cuba Gooding Jr.) hasn’t seen it either; this ambitious young shrink can break through a woman’s Pope obsession early in the movie, but he takes forever to figure out what makes Powell tick.

Aside from the director and writer, both of whom have yet to impress me, Instinct is the feeble one-handed work of many talented hands (including the two Oscar-winning stars) who have seen much better days. Ace cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (who won his Oscar for A River Runs Through It) finds no beauty in the lush African jungle; top-flight monster-maker Stan Winston (he got his Oscar forAliens) builds some fake gorillas, but unfortunately he’s no Rick Baker, and the noble beasts are elegantly-sculpted, blatantly obvious latex. Even the usually idiosyncratic Danny Elfman (no Oscars yet, but two nominations) falls into sub-Lion King drums and weepy violins for his score here. As for the stars, Hopkins does nothing he hasn’t done before, and Gooding overdoes Theo’s sensitivity; he always seems just about to cry, and when he finally does, it doesn’t move us.

There’s about enough material here for an hour-long episode of TV drama, so the filmmakers toss in a lot of extraneous padding, like Powell’s estranged daughter (poor Maura Tierney, stuck with some of the worst lines) and every sequence dealing with the backward prison where Powell is being held — an allegedly heart-tugging moment involving the defiant ripping of playing cards should be ripe for vicious parody if the movie is a hit.

Which it may well be. Instinct may fill a need in the mass audience, just as Phenomenon did and Patch Adams did. Apparently we need to be told that we’ve lost our way, that we’ve misplaced our souls on the fast track to the millennium. Which may very well be true, but these movies also tell us that we can regain our nobility if we just believe, and open our hearts, and go stand out in the rain or something. Are people so stressed and spiritually exhausted now that they need to find meaning in this hypocritical Hollywood New Age fluff? (I’d like to know how many natural resources were conserved in the making of Instinct.) Past a certain point, chicken soup for the soul becomes horseshit for the brain.

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