Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Instinct

By Russell Smith

JUNE 7, 1999: 

D: Jon Turteltaub; with Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Maura Tierney, Donald Sutherland. (R, 123 min.)

Fans of Daniel Quinn's 1992 philoso-fiction novel Ishmael are sure to cringe at some of the changes Hollywood has made to assure box-office viability for this loose "as suggested by" adaptation. But while incorrigible showboats Gooding and Hopkins may not be ideal vehicles for Quinn's wryly didactic ruminations on man's crummy stewardship of the earth, pragmatic cultists will at least have to admit that they're (a) a heck of a lot more entertaining than Al Gore, and (b) better positioned than Quinn to win hearts and minds in a post-literate age. The major change wrought by Turteltaub -- with the author's apparent consent -- is elimination of Quinn's magical-realist flourish of making the lead character a talking gorilla. Instead, Ishmael's humans-are-pigs jeremiads are delivered by Hopkins, in the role of prominent anthropologist Ethan Powell. Powell, who vanished for two years while studying gorillas in Africa, seems to have gone feral during that time. He no longer speaks, not even to defend himself against murder charges. Clinical psychologist Theo Calder (Gooding Jr.), a hard-charging careerist with a knack for dealing with hard-to-reach subjects, is put on the case and quickly cajoles Powell into talking. And talking, and talking, and talking ... Between the periodic beatings that Powell doles out to Calder and others in his immediate vicinity (like fellow geezer Sean Connery, the bad-assedness of Hopkins' movie persona seems to increase in inverse proportion to his real-life decrepitude), the handcuffed, white-bearded doctor delivers a fair enough summary of Quinn's philosophy. Basically, it boils down to a vision of humans as insatiable "takers" of the earth's resources. Deluding ourselves that we're exempt from nature's laws, we hurtle blindly into the abyss, trashing the earth for short-term gain while assuring our own extinction. And it's not just our external environment that's suffering but our souls as well. By disconnecting from nature, we lock ourselves into sterile, artificial worlds that satisfy none of our most basic emotional needs. Boring! Imagining (perhaps accurately) a mass audience with a Homer Simpson-like incapacity for idea-driven entertainment, the filmmakers regularly interrupt Hopkins' cautionary lectures with big, bombastic knucklehead movie moments: macho brawls; bodies flying through windows; Hopkins halfheartedly stealing riffs from his Hannibal Lecter persona and Gooding whipping himself into grimacing, hyperventilating fits -- apparently for no other reason than that he believes it's what is expected of him. The whole experience is disconcertingly schizoid. Still, there's plenty of solid, intelligent content here to stir the mind and heart, assuming you're able to overlook the distinctly patronizing presentation. In an ideal world, of course, movies about looming environmental Armageddon wouldn't require nearly this many bloody fistfights or scenes of Cuba Gooding Jr. in full Pepsi-commercial manic overdrive. But then, in an ideal world, I'd look like Pierce Brosnan and Rush Limbaugh would be my yardman. My admittedly hedged advice: Consider giving Instinct a shot, if only because we so rarely encounter movies that provoke discussion of topics more substantial than who's had hair implants or who supposedly blew the producer for the lead role. Otherwise, save your ticket money and buy the book.
2.5 stars


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