Basic Instinct Review

The Film

After his well-received screenplay for Jagged Edge and then Costa Gavras' Music Box, Joe Eszterhas became something of a hot property in Tinseltown. A man who could write of the moment, sexy thrillers which could get some critical recognition as well. Everyone wanted him, as they did the man who had delivered two outstanding and popular blockbusters in Total Recall and Robocop. When the writer came up with a story of sexual corruption, plentiful and frank nudity, and with a Hitchcockesque female lead, then the man who directed The Fourth Man seemed to be the perfect choice to do it justice.

"You've got too close to the liked it"

Watching it now, the reputation for this movie is as a sleazy entry in the popular films that Michael Douglas reeled off as a symbol of modern manhood at the turn of the eighties. Fatal Attraction is MD versus the threat to infidelity, Falling Down is MD versus political correctness and Disclosure is MD versus the successful business woman. For a short while, Douglas became a symbol of a crisis in masculinity - weak, vulnerable and under attack by liberated women, social change and economic failure. Perhaps the intention was to make the actor a heroic figure undergoing the trials of modern man, but this idea failed because Douglas is never a clean cut ordinary joe but a complicated, rather corrupt persona. And in Basic Instinct, he finds himself perfectly cast as a washed up cop with addled brains through his excesses of drugs, booze and sex.

When Hitchcock cast Jimmy Stewart in roles which played off his decent iconic status, he achieved the best work of his career. Vertigo takes the likeable Stewart and exposes the pain of bereavement, the fear of being betrayed and makes necrophilia understandable for the many as the great actor remakes his dead love. Here Verhoeven does something very similar as Douglas as Detective Curran is twisted inside and out through his failings and addictions by a female killer. In fact, the film is really a romance of two killers, one a game player addicted to getting away with it and the other a killer who murders because he has lost control of his desires and his fate. One is a woman most definitely in control, and one is a man lost in her spell. If in his earlier roles Douglas recovered his masculinity, here he most definitely is never anything other than a plaything.

Some have argued that the character of Catherine Tramell is a misogynist construction. A lipstick lesbian who all the men want but if they have her she'll swallow them whole or at least emasculate them. As a whole person she doesn't seem real, she changes her affections too quickly and her abilities to read the other sex are almost supernatural. Her friends are all killers of men and the family and she will ensure that feminine dominance is always assured. Is Tramell the scourge of modern man, a praying mantis who mates and then eats her prey?

Some have said that Tramell is the true hero of the film. An empowered woman who exposes the adult masculine world as permanently horny, stupid and predictable. She destroys a seedy politician and then she plans to destroy Curran, pushing his buttons and showing how morally similar the two of them are, even if their abilities are far from matched. They both may get away with murder, but at least Tramell knew what she was doing whilst Curran is simply out of control.

In truth though, Tramell is simply underwritten as Curran's nemesis. The film throws maguffins into the mix to suggest a different nature for this woman as well as other cuplrits for the murders. This though doesn't work, as her true self is never in doubt, never covered up, and never subtle. Her sudden changes of mind and affection are simple plot devices and not grounded in character, and the only reasons for the maguffins and doubt over Trammell seem to be to get the audience to admire her too, even though from the very opening we know what she is.

Trammell is every bit as glamorous as Hitchcock's cool blondes and her desire and ability to meet her own needs mean that we can't help but find her more of a focal point than Curran. Curram whines, he forces sex on people, he dances badly, he can't drive like her, and he simply can't control himself. Any survival for him in the film is entirely dependent on him having utility for Tramell, if Douglas is meant to be modern man once again then he has simply become an incompetent sexual servant unable to help himself or his friends. A being locked into his own downfall and unable to do anything about it.

What there is to love in a flawed thriller is the work of Verhoeven. Glorying in the female power to penetrate, never skimping on men's monomanic obsessions and achilles heals, and delivering a dizzying update on Film Noir. Working once again with fellow emigre Jan De Bont, the film employs long takes, switching between first and third person shots and oodles of homage to Hitchcock's spiral imagery and iconic touches playing on the San Franciscan locale(the same setting for Vertigo). Similarly, Jerry Goldsmith channels the spirit of Bernard Herrman for a truly amazing score which wraps the action in a dreamlike momentum. The director uses these talents well and fashions an icon out of Sharon Stone, whilst delighting in the blood, the lust and the irony. If his earlier films had embraced human appetites with a real passion, here those emotions of possession and procreation are exaggerated to the level of sexual politics, and it is his work on the more interesting elements of the script that elevates this story above misogyny or failed whodunnit.

Verhoeven's film, not Eszterhas' script, deserves to be enjoyed alongside modern sleazier thrillers of identity like De Palma's Dressed to Kill and Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome. It takes those darker, sicker notions of Hitchcock such as male fear of redundancy and the feminine becoming the hunter and writes them in bloody ten foot high letters whilst giving the audience the violence and titillation they expect. Basic Instinct is far from perfect, but take a look again and deny that it is not a truly intriguing piece of exploitation for the masses.

The Disc

The previous HD DVD release and the Region A Blu-Ray are treatments which have received criticism elsewhere and the press release from Optimum raises concerns because of the transfer being described at 1080i. This Region AB coded disc definitely plays at 1080P on my computer and it would be strange if this wasn't a port of the existing HD-DVD and Studio Canal VC1 encodes which are both 1080P, and reading reviews of these previous releases prompts me to believe it is. The visual quality is good with solid sharpness and detail at the centre of the image, strong contrast and well balanced colours and minor grain. The previous HD-DVD release was criticised for looking a bit flat and being DNR'd and those criticisms can be repeated again here but edges are superbly done and the plasticated flesh tones of the US Blu-ray are thankfully avoided. There are some marks on the print at times but this is an above average visual treatment overall and seemingly an improvement on the US disc.

For larger screenshot (1920 x 1080) open this link in a new page

The DTS-HD MA track from the previous HD release is included here and although I didn't personally notice the pitch problem reported elsewhere it would be a fair bet that this track possesses it as well. As is often the case with this kind of audio option it does feel a bit restrained at times and while it boasts clarity and richness it lacks aggressiveness, and the bass is not overly obvious in the sub-woofer track. Still the increased definition and detail allows Goldsmith's seductive score to be fully appreciated and the violence to really make its mark. The surround effects are distributed in conventional conservative form with music and background noises across the whole range of speakers and dialogue only coming from the front of the mix. This effect gives a relaxed and straightforward surround experience and can be supported by adequate and clear subs as required.

This is a dual layer disc with the main feature taking up 27.5GB of the 28.3GB used. The menus are very straightforward with animation of the film and clear obvious options, and the only extras are audio and video configuration wizards. The extras reported earlier of a Camille Paglia commentary and the featurette are not included.


Less extras than other releases but a preferable picture when compared to the US Blu-ray, this AB coded disc is a probable port of the former HD DVD release.

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