Ponderously straight-faced on screen, “Instinct’s” true silliness becomes clear once its basic High Concept has been distilled. Which, in this case, would be “Apeman Killer Teaches Yuppie Shrink to Feel!” Awkward, sluggish, finally ludicrous mix of suspense, character drama and inspirational fodder is half-baked on all counts — a combo that previously worked at the B.O. for “Phenomenon” helmer Jon Turteltaub and scenarist Gerald DiPego. Sleeper success this time around seems much less likely. Those who’ve been chomping at the bit for “Silence of the Lambs II” may be sucked in opening weekend by the notion of Anthony Hopkins back behind bars. But neither he nor co-star Cuba Gooding Jr. will keep this afloat for long amid summer blockbuster competition.
Story was “suggested by” Daniel Quinn’s unique bestseller “Ishmael,” an imagined conversation between gorilla and man in which the assumed moral superiority of latter’s evolutionary path toward “civilization” is debunked.
That conceit clearly wouldn’t work for a conventional narrative feature, so DiPego plants its philosophical gist in a wholly new scenario. Trouble is, the story plays out in such hackneyed fashion that Quinn’s thesis comes off as the kind of simplistic “nature good, people bad” finger-waggling best suited to pulp fantasies like “King Kong.”
Opening has “brilliant primatologist” Ethan Powell (Hopkins) being extradited from a Rwandan prison to the U.S., where he’s to stand trial for a violent crime. It seems the researcher had “gone native,” virtually disappearing for two years into the African wilderness — and into the company of mountain gorillas. When a local search party arrived (we gradually discover), indiscriminately shooting at the gentle apes in order to “save” Powell, latter exploded into a murderous rage.
Since then he’s remained mute, as well as dangerous. Powell panics upon arrival at Miami airport, unleashing another violent outburst.
Powell must undergo psychiatric evaluation before he can proceed through the U.S. legal system. Esteemed specialist Ben Hillard (Donald Sutherland) passes this task to his protege — ambitious, eager-to-please young shrink Theo Caulder (Gooding Jr.), who quite reasonably sees a career-making book deal coming out of his sensational assignment. But first he has to win the heavily medicated, still-threatening prisoner’s trust — as well as that of officials at Harmony Bay Correctional Facility.
The slow bonding betwixt interviewer and wily “wild-man” subject is pic’s crux, albeit one that unfolds in disappointingly rote terms. It doesn’t take all that much for Powell to break his silence. Several Rwandan flashbacks then show the anthropologist gaining acceptance from the gorilla tribe, until he stops “observing” and simply joins their gentle lifestyle.
While attractively lensed (with Jamaica as a location stand-in) and featuring a convincing mix of animal footage and creature illusions, these segs don’t achieve the interspecies emotional intimacy desired a la “Gorillas in the Mist.” Hopkins’ character just sits around the forest, beaming at surrounding apes like a senior citizen clucking over passersby from a park bench. Yes, the mammals love their offspring and live a fairly peaceful existence. But the notion that this reps an idyllic counterpoint to contempo human society isn’t very vividly illustrated.
Without really communicating this “primitive” lifestyle’s profound appeal, pic stokes little power toward its climactic, bloody flashback. Nor does Powell’s willful estrangement from his human family — repped by a mostly sidelined Maura Tierney as the embittered adult daughter — rate much sympathy as a result.
Given routine manner in which the central crime is portended and finally revealed, tension here derives solely from the question of whether no longer “tame” Powell will explode into “savage” violence at any minute. A bullying fellow inmate (Paul Bates) and ditto chief guard (John Ashton) provide the obvious targets. As in “Lambs,” Hopkins easily suggests his character can psychologically manipulate his “keepers.” Nonetheless, he’s a none-too-fit-looking man of 60-plus; seeing Powell physically subdue all comers is pure contrivance.Rest of bloated running time is filled out by big-house cliches lifted whole from “One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Cool Hand Luke,” et al. — complete with a corny group rebellion setpiece. Growing less careerist and more empathetic in his concerns, Caulder pushes for improved conditions in the institution’s psychotic ward, encountering resistance at most turns. He also learns important Personal Life Lessons from the good (if homicidal) doctor, prompting such nuggets as “You taught me how to live outside the game!”
Ending (which had preview aud a-titter) hands both principals their various freedoms, literal and metaphorical. Sole suspense lays in guessing which one will get the inevitable raising-arms-exultantly-in-a-rainstorm fadeout.
Role is a risky one for Hopkins — in the sense that its initial manacled menace may leave some viewers feeling lured, then cheated, by expectations of Hannibal Lecter-type mayhem. In the end, such confusion wasn’t worth hazarding: Powell’s appeal as a flamboyant character outline is negated by screenplay’s shallow psychological depths. Thesp is certainly skilled enough to survive with dignity intact, no small feat here.
Gooding Jr. is convincing to a point in a change-of-pace, albeit rather thankless part. Quick-witted and ingratiating early on, he effectively limns Caulder’s professional skills, but not his ruthless drive — which renders the yuppie-grows-a-soul plot arc less than engrossing. Tierney’s marginal role provides a faint flicker of romantic spark. Sutherland is graceful as usual in another mentor role. Other thesps are pro within stereotype support parts.
Material cries for some greater intensity of approach — be it feral-exotic, mystical, scary or even campy — to transform its improbable conceits into viable drama. But Turteltaub’s pedestrian direction succeeds only in muffling potential derisive laughter through sheer, plodding earnestness. Quicker pacing might have alleviated a fast-dawning sense that narrative has no real surprises in store.
Tech work for widescreen prod is high-grade; Danny Elfman’s score provides just conventional atmosphere and uplift.