Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jean Tripplehorn
Director:  Paul Verhoeven
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  129 Minutes
Release Date:  September 18, 2001

“You won’t learn anything I don’t want you to know.”

“Yes, I will.  Then I’ll nail you.”

“No, you’ll just fall in love with me.”

“I’m in love with you already.  But I’ll nail you anyway.”

Film ***1/2

Basic Instinct is a psycho-sexually charged piece of film noir where all characters walk in shadow, where manipulation is a game to some and destructive to others, and where judgment is often overpowered by carnal impulses and bare human emotion. 

It was the first teaming of director Paul Verhoeven with screenwriter Joe Esterhas.  As a team, they would see some less fruitful days in their future, but they seemed to have everything clicking on their first project together.  The movie is lurid, pushing the envelopes on many fronts (not just in terms of sex and violence).  It intrigues, repulses, unsettles and mystifies all at the same time.  It has more than one aspect that might make you say, “Hey, WAIT a minute…” after it’s all said and done, but even that is part of the charm, for lack of a better word.  The more you think you know, the less you feel like you do.

Nick Curran (Douglas) is a cop who seems capable of walking a thin line.  He’s no man in a white hat; in fact, many of his skeletons are revealed in rapid-fire fashion.  He has problems with booze and drugs.  He’s under investigation by Internal Affairs for an incident where he shot two innocent tourists.  He’s under psychological evaluation from the force shrink Beth Garner (Tripplehorn).  And he’s about to come face to face with a murder mystery that’s way over his head.

When an aging rock star ends up brutally stabbed to death in his bed with an ice pick, the prime suspect is his longtime girlfriend-of-sorts, Catherine Tramell (Stone).  She has degrees in both literature and psychology, and she’s also the author of a murder tale in which…get this…a rock star’s girlfriend murders him with an ice pick.

Catherine coyly protests her innocence…after all, would she be dumb enough to act out a murder scene she herself penned in a best selling novel?  Her mannerisms are sly, her word choices are sinister…and though Nick should know better, he becomes involved with her, while trying to satisfy his suspicions that she was indeed the killer at the same time.  At the same time, she makes no bones about her next writing project:  the story of a detective who falls for the wrong girl, and ends up dead.

The picture has many satisfying twists, which I won’t spoil for you here.  It all leads up to an ending that some have construed as deliberately ambiguous…I don’t happen to agree.  There is a certain sense that when it reaches a certain point, only one of two conclusions are possible, and that the filmmakers picked the one that was the most satisfying.

Although sexual orientation isn’t really an issue in the story, this film earned quite a reputation for itself by the protests it merited from certain gay and lesbian groups (and I can’t address their specific concerns without using spoilers).  Unable to change the film to suit their sensibilities, they tried to sabotage it instead by revealing the ending far and wide.  Their efforts, of course, failed, as Basic Instinct went on to become the most successful film of 1992.

But marginal nitpicking aside, I think the film works masterfully on a character-driven level.  We are intrigued by two main characters who are both morally ambiguous enough to believe either one is capable of any action, as well as skilled enough to manipulate the truth and alter situations to their advantage.  In that respect, it’s very much a cat-and-mouse kind of game with a generous helping of unbridled eroticism.  Who lives and who dies may be directly related to which one is better at the game.

It’s really the only level on which to approach the film, to my way of thinking.  Many potential filmgoers may have only focused on the reputed sexuality of the film going in, and that’s a mistake.  Sure, there is much sexuality up for display, but in the context of the mood and atmosphere of the picture, it doesn’t exactly titillate.  It disturbs and adds to the darkness of the characters.

It’s really the true essence of noir on all levels:  nobody is innocent, everyone has an agenda, and the mistakes of your past never stop coming back to haunt you.

Video ***1/2

This is a very nicely done anamorphic pressing from Artisan.  The film has several “looks” to it, including naturalistic scenes and shots that are deliberately manipulated to make you think “hot” and “cold”.  These shots may appear a bit softer, with more saturated coloring and less definition, but this is an artistic decision.  Normal shots look absolutely beautiful, with a rich, natural array of coloring, excellent detail and contrast, and no grain or compression evident to mar the image.  Widescreen is the only way to watch this movie, and this DVD represents the best possible medium for a home viewing of it.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack (2 channel surround also included) is also well done, with plenty of dynamic range, choice but effective use of the .1 channel, and an open mix of both effects and music that spreads across all speakers for a lively, ambient effect (or for a more punchy one during two great car chases).  A very commendable effort.

Features ****

The extras package is impressive, starting with two good commentary tracks.  The first is a detailed behind-the-scenes one by director Verhoeven and DP Jan De Bont, who discuss the ins and outs of the making of the film in some technical detail.  The second is by feminist film critic Camille Paglia, who discusses the movie from a fan’s point of view, as well as dismissing the notion of misogynistic or homophobic undercurrents in it.

There is a 24 minute documentary that focuses on the making of the film and features many crew member interviews, as well as two protestors who talk about why they targeted the movie and how they tried to bring about change in it.  There is a montage called “Cleaning Up Basic Instinct”, which only demonstrates the difference between the theatrical and television versions of the movie (as if we couldn’t guess).  There is a photo gallery, storyboard drawings, talent files, production notes, and a trailer and TV spot to round out.  Complimenting this limited edition release is a clear case designed to look like a block of ice, with an ice pick shaped red ink pen that makes for a nice display!  

BONUS:  Look for two special Easter eggs:  one showing rehearsal footage with Sharon Stone, the other with Jean Tripplehorn.


Basic Instinct is loved by many, hated by others…it’s the kind of film that’s impossible to be neutral about.  Focus on the characters and their dark, self-destructive behaviors and you have a satisfying thriller.  This nicely packaged limited edition release from Artisan looks good and sounds good, and should be considered a must-have for fans.