Basic Instinct (Special Edition) Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 1 release of Basic Instinct. An excellent film has received a mixed DVD release, with slightly disappointing audio and visual quality, but some very good extras.

The Film

Basic Instinct was released in 1992 to outrage from gay activists, distaste from large sections of the media, and prurient interest from many of the public. As an 11-year old schoolboy at the time, I remember wishing that I looked old enough to sneak into a showing; however, I had to wait until an indulgent relative bought me the video for one Christmas before watching Paul Verhoeven’s controversial film. My initial reaction was one of confusion; the sex scenes were great, and I enjoyed the car chases, but there seemed to be a bit more going on than I quite understood, and the ending didn’t really satisfy me at all. 9 years later, I rewatched the film, hoping it would all make more sense. Thankfully, I think it did (although you might well disagree after reading this review!)

The plot is iconic. Nick Curran (Douglas), a somewhat volatile cop who has been accused of various crimes in the past, including murder, is investigating the murder of a rock star with his jovial partner Gus (Dzunda), and he meets the bisexual, knickerless author Catherine Trammell (Stone), a former lover of the rock star. Trammell is more than a match for Curran, and his comfortable perceptions of women begin to be overturned, leading to conflict with his on/off lover Beth (Tripplehorn), as well as further intrigue, murder and, of course, some of the most explicit sex scenes ever seen in a mainstream film.

Normally, I find it easy enough to grade and rate films. A film like, say, Blow, which is a well-made and intelligent mainstream film, would normally merit a 7/8 score, whereas a film like Shining Through would merit a 2/3 score, on grounds of artistic incompetence and a complete lack of success. Basic Instinct is simultaneously flawed and remarkably good, which makes it more or less impossible to score fairly. In the debit corner, Joe Eszerthas’ script is disappointingly lacking in genuine wit, with too many of the better lines revolving around the use of the word ‘fuck’, and with virtually all the film’s finest moments lacking all dialogue at all. It’s also attracted a lot of criticism for the big plot twist being supposedly identical to those in his other films, such as Jagged Edge; however, Verhoeven is a sufficiently intelligent director to make the final revelation far more ambiguous than it initially appears.

The film was also criticised, both during and after production, for being both anti-gay and anti-women. Whether it is a homophobic film is a moot point; certainly, there are aspects of the lesbian characters that smack of misogynistic fantasy, but the Trammell character’s bisexuality is also a part of her psychological make up, indicating her disinterest in respecting the conventions of society. This leads nicely into the second accusation made against the film, of misogyny, which can be completely debunked by one of the most famous scenes in the film, the interrogation scene in which Catherine flashes her vagina at the assembled interrogators. At first glance, the scene appears to be a typically Paul Verhoeven-esque piece of prurience, and was indeed assessed as such by critics on its initial release. However, repeated viewings clearly show that Trammell is completely in control throughout the scene, with her flaunting of her sexuality inhibiting and virtually emasculating the assembled sweating men, and that the film’s view of men is certainly far more bitter and cynical than its view of women.

The two major successes of the film are Sharon Stone and Paul Verhoeven. Stone, in the role which made her a star, is nothing short of sensational, managing to evoke the spirit of Hitchcockian blondes, yet updating it so as to avoid anachronism. It’s also a remarkably nuanced performance, moving from icy coldness to quick, sudden moments of humanity and feeling, albeit ones which may well be feigned. Apart from Casino, Stone has yet to deliver a performance this good in another film; perhaps a reunion with Verhoeven might yet produce that.

The mad Dutchman himself has to be acclaimed for the sheer skill with which he essentially rescues Eszterhas’ script from B-movie hell, both in the sheer technical polish that he brings to the film and the sly Hitchcockian touches scattered throughout the film, ranging from Vertigo to North by Northwest; it’s certainly possible to argue that this is his most accomplished American film to date, with the possible exception of Robocop. It goes without saying that Douglas is his usual excellent self as Curran, doing his usual schtick of ‘American contemporary male in trauma’; however, an excellent Michael Douglas performance in these things seems to be obligatory, with the exception of the awful Shining Through.

As I mentioned before, this is a hard film to grade. A part of me would love to give it 10/10, because it is certainly one of the best films of the 1990s, and the fact that it is still discussed today by such critics as Camille Paglia indicates its importance. However, to avoid the outrage that this would probably cause among my more conservative colleagues, and because I have doubts about giving a film with a Joe Eszterhas script 10/10 anyway, I’ll give it 9/10. However, this is a very good film indeed, both as a simple thrill ride, and as a post-Freudian examination of the role of women in society and relationships. And it has one of the most interestingly ambiguous endings ever, which is bound to stimulate debate…

The Picture

Artisan have done a fairly good, although not remarkable, job here. The print used is in good condition, and colours are bright and strong, allowing Jan de Bont’s cinematography to shine. However, there’s a rather surprising amount of grain for such a comparatively recent film, and a slightly washed-out look to the transfer occasionally, although nothing too upsetting. Not bad at all, but verging on the disappointing.

The Sound

A 5.1 remix is provided. Once again, it’s all too obvious that it’s a remix, as the only aspect of the soundtrack that really benefits is Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score, which sounds better here than ever before. Surrounds are used occasionally for the rest of the soundtrack, but there’s less use than you would expect from a film with a comparatively high action quotient like this, which occasionally leads to slight flatness, as you expect a surround effect which doesn’t come. However, it’s not a bad effort, and dialogue is crystal clear, as you would hope.

The Extras

Here is where the disc starts to really deliver. Two things to note; firstly, the case is quite dreadful. It’s a transparent, oversized plastic case where the disc itself rests on a blue sponge, and a free ice pick shaped pen is included in the package. Nice idea, lousy execution; as with their Total Recall casing, the gimmicky is no substitute for the practical as far as Artisan are concerned. Secondly, although the film is advertised as the ‘unrated director’s cut’, it’s exactly the same as the 18-rated cinema and video version that’s been available in this country all along, so no surprises there. I believe that the R-rated version loses some of the extras; I can’t understand why you’d want to bother with it.

The extras that are provided are comparatively few, but of a high standard. The two commentaries are both very good indeed. Verhoeven and Jan de Bont discuss the film fairly exhaustively, and with a great deal of enthusiasm; fans of the mad Dutchman’s previous commentaries will not be disappointed, although he is slightly more restrained than usual. The second commentary is from the feminist critic Camille Paglia, for whom this is one of her favourite films. Her commentary is excellent for the first 30-40 minutes of the film, when she is highly articulate on her feelings about the individual scenes, and their symbolism. However, her comments become more sporadic from this point, although they’re still very interesting. Definitely recommended for all film students or serious critical thinkers.

The other extras are also good. A good 25-minute documentary, called ‘Blonde Poison’ explores the film’s genesis, production and (mainly) the controversy that it aroused with gay activists. Verhoeven is wonderfully candid throughout the documentary, cheerfully comparing Sharon Stone’s character to Satan, and treating the audience to his views on homosexuals (unsurprisingly, he’s rather liberal). However, it’s a good watch, although too short. There’s a briefly interesting but slightly grating feature exploring dialogue changes made to TV versions of the film; while the appalling dubbing is amusing for a time, it’s not that fun for 5 minutes. The more usual round of storyboards, photos etc round out the extras, although there are a couple of quite fun Easter Eggs. Happy hunting…


A very good film is finally given the release that it deserves, although I think that the picture quality might have been cleaned up a bit more than Artisan have done. However, the extras are excellent, with even the atrocious packaging not detracting from the disc that much. Recommended.

Alexander Larman

Updated: Sep 26, 2001

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