Note: The version reviewed below is the Director’s Cut of the film which is the version currently streaming on HBO Max.
Basic Instinct – #1 Film in the US
All-Time Domestic $117,727,224 | International $235,200,00
All-Time Worldwide $352,927,224
Basic Instinct is basic in its understanding of eroticism and below basic in its understanding of bisexuality that gets by on a breakout performance from Sharon Stone.
The opening weekend of Basic Instinct was the peak of erotic thrillers. It knocked Wayne’s World out of the box office after five weeks. It becomes the fourth highest-grossing film of 1992. An erotic thriller being box office or streaming gold in 2022 would be unheard of.
Director Paul Verhoeven of RoboCop and Total Recall fame directed a script that cost $3 million to buy alone. The screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was known for the iconic 80’s film Flashdance and the neo-noir Jagged Edge. Most readers will know him as the guy who wrote Showgirls.
Michael Douglas wanted Julia Roberts to star alongside him. Verhoeven insisted on Sharon Stone having worked with Verhoeven in Total Recall. Stone had a small, but significant part duking it out with Arnold Schwarzenegger in that film as his wife. This would set the path for Stone to be the name on everyone’s lips for the next decade.
Detective Nick Curran (Douglas) is on the case of the murder of old-time rock n’ roller Johnny Boz. Among the suspects is Boz’s girlfriend is novelist Catherine Tramell (Stone). Tramell has written a story that depicts a similar murder involving an ice pick during rough sex. Curran develops a fascination with Tramell and divulges into old vices and old sexual desires. His therapist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) believes Nick is getting in too deep, complicating the case with his own desires. The more he gets caught in the web of Tramell’s design, the more ravenous he becomes. It may seem harmless, but harm starts to come in the way as more murders occur and the stakes get higher.
Basic Instinct is a trashy neo-noir that can be fun at times but does not hold up that much thirty years later. There’s more bad than good in the film with Stone’s performance coming in clutch. Yet, it doesn’t do much to garner the win.
Nick is a terrible detective and human. He’s supposed to be the 90s version of a film noir anti-hero. Nothing about him screams heroic. He thinks with his dick the entire time. He is easily manipulated by Catherine’s words and game. He is an absolute moron and asshole. Catherine picked a perfect idiot to take to task. Also, he also rapes his therapist. This is the only scene in the movie that pisses me off the most.
Rape does not need to be shown on screen ever if at all. It adds nothing to the story and is horrendous to portray on screen. The implication could be there without the act and the story of his descent into his sexual desires would still work. The rape is cut in the theatrical cut to a quick bend over the couch then to bed. In the Director’s Cut, it’s on full display and it’s fuckin’ foul. Jeanne Tripplehorn herself said the scene was to be presented less as rape and more as rough sex. Yet that day on set, nope, pure rape.
Stone as Cathrine Tramell is delicious in her villainy. She ate up this entire movie up being the new school femme fatale. Stone oozes this dangerous sex appeal in her delivery. She could fit into a classic noir and still leave every viewer sweating like Wayne Knight. She’s conniving and a master manipulator. Stone’s breakout success is marvelous with some caveats. In recent years, Stone regrets the interrogation scene where she uncrosses her leg. Her whole vulva is on display and it’s a risky shot to place in the film. Stone has every right to be pissed. She says that Verhoeven did not tell her about how he would shoot the scene. He said for her to remove her underwear as the light reflected on the underwear. Verhoeven denies this claim, but Stone has mentioned it several times including in her memoir. I’m on Stone’s side for this.
Praise aside, Stone’s character managed to stir up some controversy in the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco. The film was shot on location in the city with the community members getting pissed about the portrayal of Catherine’s bisexuality in the film. There would protest on the sets of the film. There would be whistles blown during shots. When the film was released, the LGBTQ+ community would picket the film by spoiling the end. Yet, here comes another queer-coded (or in this film, about as subtle as a trainwreck) villain.
She’s made to be seen as immoral due to being in touch with herself and her sexual identity. This movie is biphobic as fuck. It makes bisexuality seem depraved. Not once is it portrayed in the best of spotlights. Her scorned lover Roxy (Leilani Serelle) is an angry lesbian ready to kill Nick in a car chase. The local club with other queer people is presented as a place of degradation and immorality. Watching this as an out bisexual man three years later does make a difference. It is harmful to the perception of bisexuals. There’s enough biphobia in the world (and sometimes in the community itself) to go around.
The eroticism presented throughout is goofy. Showgirls got laughed at for its portrayal of eroticism. I argue that it makes its first appearance here. The sex is hilariously over-the-top that it is a preview of the infamous pool scene in that film. The sex is raw and passionate, but cheesy. I will commend the film’s Director’s Cut for showing Douglas’ character perform oral on Stone which is a rarity in cinema. Oral sex performed on a woman warrants an automatic NC-17. Blowjobs are fine for an R-rating by the Motion Picture Association’s standard. Yet, heaven forbid a woman receives cunnilingus.
It’s frustrating that sex in cinema is so dominated by men getting pleasure all the time. Women should be on equal footing by showing that women can experience pleasure because they can. It’s not even subtle in its eroticism and outside of Stone is the epitome of sex appeal, it falters. Verhoeven can direct with the best of them with great satires in RoboCop and Starship Troopers. That direction is not on display here. If someone wants a great erotic thriller, stick with the other Michael Douglas one: Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction.
Within the three years of my last rewatch, I watched Fatal Attraction. I expected it to be another Basic Instinct with over-the-top thrills and more cheesy. Fatal Attraction is the real deal with true drama, true eroticism, and stellar performances from Douglas and Glenn Close. That movie is the absolute GOAT of erotic thrillers. It’s so damn good that you will understand why it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars when watching. Lyne delivered a masterclass in eroticism and psychological thrills with Attraction. That film is way worth more of your time than Basic Instinct. Plus, no biphobia. Everyone wins. Basic Instinct is trying to keep Douglas in the erotic thriller fold. Yet, it’s hard to do when the first go-around was a perfect thrill ride. I’m still mad as hell he cheated on Anne Archer with Glenn Close in that movie. What a bastard.
Basic Instinct is a hard-to-recommend rewatch. The time for it has definitely come and gone. It’s become a relic of when erotic thrillers ruled the box office, but not the best rep for a sub-genre. It’s over-the-top, unsubtle, and crumbles. It can be delightful at times due in part to Stone’s breakout performance but falters on being worthwhile. Your instinct should point you in another direction.
Revue Rating: 2.5 out of 5 (★★½)
Next week, Wesley and Woody prove if White Men Can’t Jump.