Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay: Joe Eszterhas
Starring: Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, Jeanne Tripplehorn, George Dzundza
Duration: 127 mins
BBFC Certification: 18
The world changes at such a fast pace nowadays that any movie released is almost immediately in danger of becoming rapidly out of date. What felt edgy and cutting one moment may feel cliched, dated or embarrassing the next. Recently, this potential repositioning of a movie’s reputation is most keenly driven by modern reappraisals of gender representation and sexual politics. What could seem daring or subversive at the time could nowadays quite easily come across as toxic or offensive…which leads us neatly onto Basic Instinct, the 1992 box office smash from Paul Verhoeven.
Subject to a lavish new 4K restoration from StudioCanal, Basic Instinct is released next week in a variety of deluxe and special editions on DVD, Blu Ray and 4K. Yet, despite the luxury treatment the film is receiving, how well does Paul Verhoeven’s infamous and controversial sexual thriller stand up today, especially considering it has now been almost thirty years since it’s original release?
Staying true to form, Basic Instinct was beset with fame and controversy before a single frame of film had been shot. The script, written by Joe Eszterhas, had been sold for $3 million, which was an unprecedented amount at the time (hell, even for today!) for a screenplay with no stars attached. Yet the stars came. Michael Douglas swiftly jumped on board, as did Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director who had made a big splash in Hollywood with two brilliantly subversive and gloriously violent sci fi films, Robocop and Total Recall. Yet dissent was bubbling away in the wider Hollywood community. Details of the script’s story had leaked and one detail in particular stood out – a bisexual character who may or may not be a serial killer. The LGBTQ+ community in L.A. immediately began to protest, doing their very best to disrupt the production as soon as the cameras began rolling.
It is surprising, looking back on Basic Instinct today, how much studio, as well as media, interest the project attracted if we are judging it purely by its screenplay. Verhoeven may have shot the script like a high class thriller but the story itself seems to have jumped right out of a trashy airport novel. Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is a damaged cop with a history of drinking and trigger happy shootings. He is called out to investigate the murder of a rock star who has been brutally stabbed to death in his own bed with an ice pick. One of the prime suspects is the rock star’s lover, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), a stunningly beautiful and enigmatic millionaire novelist, who has a history of relationships that end in death. As Nick begins to investigate his seductive and manipulative prime suspect, his allows his suspicions to become mixed up with his passions, as his attraction to Catherine slowly begins to draw him deeper into her web…
The film’s opening scene (where a rock star meets his comeuppance at the end of an ice pick) certainly seems to encapsulate the more trashy and lurid elements of the plot. Over the top, with gratuitous amounts of sex and violence, Basic Instinct immediately establishes itself as a film that is going to provoke as much as it is going to entertain. The environment in which the film was made, during a period of high conservatism in America where fear about the AIDS crisis was running rampant, ensured that there was a significant degree of prudishness in Hollywood when it came to on-screen sex. If Basic Instinct’s opening still manages to brilliantly grab the attention today, it must have been doubly shocking for the film’s contemporary audience. Nothing this graphic or debauched had come out of mainstream Hollywood in a long time. No wonder the film set the box office alight.
As dominant as they are in the film, it would be unfair to say that Basic Instinct is just two hours of sex and murder. In fact, as the film settles down, it immediately begins to feel less like a lurid piece of exploitation and more akin to Noirish Hitchcockian thriller. The throwbacks to Hitchcock are plentiful, from the San Francisco setting to the blonde femme fatal archetype embodied by Sharon Stone. Jerry Goldsmith’s score even recalls the classic tension evoked by Bernard Herrmann. This level of class and sophistication is upheld by Verhoeven, who not only adroitly constructs the film with an impressive technical polish but throws in two riveting car chases to boot. He is helped in no small measure by cinematographer Jan de Bont, who imbues Basic Instinct with a slick, impressive sheen. This technical polish speaks to the conflict at the heart of the film – it is a trashy thriller captured through the lens of master craftsmen, who most of the time are paying homage to the greatest craftsman of them all.
This conflict is further fuelled by the performances, which are great across the board. Michael Douglas, who I have always felt is one of the most underrated of Hollywood’s leading men, brings his typical rough hewn charisma to the role of Nick Curran. He is ably supported by Jeanne Tripplehorn and George Dzundas, as well as other 90s faces such as Wayne Knight and Stephen Tobolowsky. Yet, for all the good work that the rest of the cast do, there is no doubt that Basic Instinct belongs to Sharon Stone (and not just for that scene, which we will come to in a moment).
It may come as a surprise, but Basic Instinct was actually Stone’s first big leading role in a major Hollywood film. She had survived up to that point by appearing in lots of TV shows and movies, peppered here and there with notable supporting roles in Hollywood films (such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife in Verhoeven’s previous film, Total Recall) but she had not yet cracked the Hollywood firmament. Which is all the more surprising, because her role in Basic Instinct is one of those rare performances that announce the arrival of a major new star. Mysterious and dangerously magnetic, Stone commands and dominates the film whenever she is on screen, forcing everyone else to stand in her shadow. She may not have been gifted the best script, but she imbues Catherine Tramell with enigmatic threat and ruthless sexuality. Even without Basic Instinct’s infamous scene, there is no doubt that Stone would have stolen the movie regardless.
But there is no doubt that that scene did help. Even if you have not seen Basic Instinct before, there is little doubt that you are unaware of the moment when Stone uncrosses her legs during a police interview. The scene immediately made the film a dubious classic and cemented Stone’s status as a Hollywood star. In the context of the film the scene works brilliantly and can quite rightly be described as one of the defining moments of Nineties cinema. Already commanding the room, Stone’s Catherine Tramell (who the audience knows is not wearing any underwear) fixated upon by half a dozen male police detectives, deflects an awkward question by slowly uncrossing and then re-crossing her legs. Instead of her sexuality becoming a vulnerability in a room full of men, Tramell uses it as a weapon to disarm her interrogators and turn them into jelly. It was rare, perhaps even unheard off in a mainstream Hollywood film, to see a woman so in command of her sexuality and to use it in such a simple yet devastating way.
What a shame, then, that such a strongly powerful and feminist moment is undermined by how the scene came about. Firstly, it was never written into the script that the audience would see what the police detectives saw. On the day of filming, Verhoeven asked Stone to remove her knickers as they were catching the light when she moved her legs. After the pivotal moment was shot, Verhoeven and Stone checked the monitors and both were happy that nothing could be seen when Stone crossed her legs. Yet during the editing process, when the picture could be seen with full clarity, it was in fact abundantly clear that something could actually be seen. Stone wasn’t informed and the controversial shot was kept in. Only finding out, to her acute embarrassment, during the film’s premiere, Stone quite naturally felt devastated and betrayed. It feels sadly ironic when watching the film today that a moment that celebrates female sexuality and power is undermined by a sense of exploitation that both the scene and character seem to be fighting against.
It is up for modern viewers to decide if the truth behind that moment, along with the film’s many sex scenes (which linger far longer on Stone than Douglas and includes an uncomfortable moment with Jeanne Tripplehorn) make the film slightly problematic. If you are able to cast any doubts aside, however, then there is no doubt that Basic Instinct still proves to be a thoroughly enjoyable ride. Gorgeous cinematography, a wonderful score and great acting serve to balance out the bad dialogue and a cheesy, trashy story that fizzles out towards the end. A high end B movie shot with Hichcockian class, Basic Instinct remains deliciously sleazy 90s treat.
Basic Instinct comes out on the 14 June in several different flavours, all based on the film’s new 4K restoration. Firstly there is a 4K Collectors Edition Package (which contains both a 4K disc and Blu Rays, along with a poster, booklet and art cards) a 2 disc Blu Ray edition, a DVD edition and finally a Zavvi exclusive steelbook which contains the 4K disc. I was given the 4K disc for this review.
StudioCanal have gone all out on the 4K restoration, aiming to create an image just as crisp as the 1992 original. Overseen by Paul Verhoeven, a 35MM negative was scanned and used as the basis of the restoration but this negative only corresponded to the short version of the film (which had been briefly censored for the US). An internegative was used to create the full length, uncut version of the film. I have no other version to compare the film to, but I thought that Basic Instinct looked fabulous in 4K. Looking wonderfully sharp and detailed as you would expect, it has some beautifully rich HDR colour grading (the ocean at Catherine Tramell’s beach house looks particularly luscious) coupled with some slightly restrained lighting during night-time scenes, which adds to the naturalism of the overall picture. There is a nice layer of film grain throughout and the encode seems robust, with no evidence of macro blocking rearing its ugly head. Overall, this is a great 4K restoration which boasts a natural picture of depth and vibrancy. Fans should be delighted. The sound has also been restored and comes in a DTS 5.1 track which sounded punchy and crystal clear.
There are several extras on the disc:
- Audio commentary with Paul Verhoeven and Jan de Bont
- Audio commentary with Camille Paglia
- Basic Instinct: Sex, Death and Stone
- An unending story – Scoring Basic Instinct
- Blonde Poison – The making of
- Cast & Crew interviews featurette
- Storyboard comparisons (Love scene – Car Chase – Elevator)
- Screen tests (Sharon Stone x 4 – Jeanne Tripplehorn x 1 )
Audio Commentary with Paul Verhoeven and Jan de Bont: This is a fast, free flowing commentary from director Paul Verhoeven and cinematographer Jan de Bont. They have an easy chemistry and discuss all aspects of the film, going into great detail about Hitchcock’s influence as well as the lighting and camera tricks used throughout the movie. Verhoeven discusses character motivations and plot intricacies as they occur, occasionally prompting Jan de Bont to explain how he achieved a certain look or shot. A slightly techy commentary at times that should certainly appeal to aspiring DOPs as well as fans of the film. A great listen.
Audio Commentary with Camille Paglia: Camille Paglia’s commentary takes an entirely difference perspective, which is far lighter on trivia and background info and incredibly heavy on analysis. She seems to be a far bigger fan of Basic Instinct than me, citing it as one of her all time favourite films. She offers some great analysis and thoughts on the film’s exploration of sexual politics, as well as really digging deep into the Hitchcock influence. However, I feel that she falls victim to hyperbole at times (claiming that Stone’s entrance in the film at the beach house is one of the great shots in contemporary cinema – really??) as well granting the film a depth I really don’t think it deserves, where every element of every frame seems loaded with a deeper meaning. Her overly analytical and rather flowery analysis dampened my enthusiasm somewhat, so I found this be a trying listen as time went on. For anyone interested in the hidden layers of Basic Instinct, however, you’ll find yourself in seventh heaven.
Sex Death and Stone: This newly commissioned documentary (in 4K no less) gathers together all the key players, including Stone and Douglas, for a look back at Basic Instinct as the film nears its thirty year anniversary. At just under an hour long, this is a slickly produced documentary that covers not just the production of the film but is also refreshingly honest about the controversies and tensions behind the scenes (especially between the writer Joe Eszterhas and Verhoeven early on in the production). It saves its best moment for last, however, as Sharon Stone not only goes into more detail about the film’s most infamous scene but how Basic Instinct cursed her career as well as launching it. Coming across as incredibly candid and honest, Stone steals the show here as much as she does in the actual film, not only pulling back the curtain on the darkness behind her 90s stardom but revealing an anger and sadness rarely seen in what are usually fluffy and overtly positive retrospective docs. An essential and important watch and easily the best extra on the disc.
Scoring Basic Instinct: This fifteen minute piece, which is also in 4K and is new and exclusive to this latest release, looks at the late great Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Interviews with film music historians connect the dots between Goldsmith’s score and its Hitchcockian influences, as well as discussing how the music helps to add psychological depth to the rather shallow plot.
Blonde Poison: This only comes in DVD quality I’m afraid. Clearly a making of that was included in earlier home video releases of the film, this initially covers similar ground to the other extras but then goes into further detail about the LGBTQ+ protests that plagued the film, offering comments and criticisms from both sides.
Cast and Crew Interviews: This short six minute piece is the only contemporary making of. It’s very much a studio EPK so doesn’t offer much of interest, but there is some interesting behind the scenes footage included.
Screen Tests: Several screen tests are included here, mainly featuring Sharon Stone (although one is with Jeanne Tripplehorn). An interesting watch in seeing how Stone developed her character (Catherine Tramell appears more vulnerable here), these also include a test from a scene not included in the final film.
Storyboard Comparisons: These offer picture in picture storyboards (the storyboards taking up the main screen with the film playing on the bottom right) comparing three scenes from the final film: The main love scene, the first car chase and the elevator scene towards the end.
A trailer rounds out the rest of the disc. A booklet will also be included with the Collector’s Edition of the film, which I unfortunately did not receive for this review.