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Basic Instinct movie review
Image: Carolco Pictures

Film

Basic Instinct at 30: An Erotic Thriller with a Controversial Legacy

A brutal murder. A brilliant killer. A cop who can’t resist the danger.

Basic Instinct: Flesh seduces. Passion kills.

Paul Verhoeven’s erotic thriller noir Basic Instinct is kind of a ridiculous movie, but it’s still an important one. On its release in 1992 — 30 years ago this week — it was massively controversial for about a dozen different reasons. 

It was called sexist and homophobic. It had that surprising shot of Sharon Stone’s crotch. Arriving after Fatal Attraction and before Disclosure, was another steamy thriller starring Michael Douglas as a flawed man trying to get laid, and suffering severely for it. It has some elements that the studio cinema today would never attempt and others that seriously don’t age well. 

Directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe  Eszterhás — the team that would notoriously reunite three years later with Showgirls — Basic Instinct combined lots of film noir and cop-on-the-edge tropes with some very of-the-moment ’90s stuff. 

Basic Instinct movie review
Basic Instinct movie review

Douglas starred as Nick, a San Francisco homicide detective whose propensities for alcohol, cocaine and rage have jeopardized his career, even though he skated a few months earlier for the accidental shooting of two tourists. He kept his badge, but acquired the nickname “Shooter.” 

Investigating the murder-by-icepick of a wealthy rock star, Nick comes across Catherine (Sharon Stone), a sexy femme fatale, who certainly can’t be called a one-dimensional character. Between the nine-figure fortune, the bisexuality, the exhibitionism, the history of murders happening to befall those close to her, and her habit of writing novels repeating the exact circumstances of each murder, she’s got nothing but dimensions. 

The two, needless to say, fall into an affair, featuring lots of graphic and acrobatic sex that Verhoeven films in full, as regular murders continue around them. The sex scenes almost got the film an NC-17 rating, before 14 seconds were removed. 

Also in the mix are Jeanne Tripplehorn as Nick’s therapist/mistress, and the original Law & Order actor George Dzundza as Nick’s partner. The cast included some faces that would become more familiar later on, like Wayne Knight (Newman!) and Stephen Tobolowsky. 

Basic Instinct essentially made Sharon Stone’s career, and it’s the best performance she’s ever given in her career. The film’s only Oscar nominations were for editing and for Jerry Goldsmith’s synthy era-specific score; neither won. 

Basic Instinct movie review
Image: Carolco Pictures

As for the writing, it wins in the dialogue department. The film’s cop banter is just outstanding, and much more realistic than most other aspects of the film. Although, in real life, it’s usually a pretty big deal when a cop in a city gets murdered, something that happened about a half-dozen times over the course of Basic Instinct

Also on the minus side, the plot is so ridiculous, and so dependent on silly twists and coincidences, that’s it’s hard not for that all to jump out while watching the film today. Also, as was popular at the time in thrillers like Jagged Edge — also written by Eszterhas — Basic Instinct goes back and forth, from scene to scene, in implying who the murderer is.  That final scene, with about five different fake-outs. 

Also, pretty much everything about the film’s treatment of homosexuality is pretty cringy today. Now, it’s not really an established stereotype of lesbians or bisexual women that they are in fact, serial murderers. If that was a stereotype back then, it isn’t one that’s survived until today. But the film still fetishizes lesbianism in a weird way.  

Beyond that, though, Basic Instinct is best known for sex. Yes, there’s a crotch shot, which Stone later said she didn’t know would make it into the movie. The sex scenes are more graphic and detailed than what is ever seen today, although that sort of thing can be seen in indie movies. The serial killer portions of last year’s Titane, for instance, could be seen as a Basic Instinct homage. 

This caused the movie to be massively controversial at the time of its release. I still remember the Premiere magazine story about it, which even previewed Dzunda’s famous line: “She got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain.”

Also in the movie that you didn’t see anymore is lots of smoking, by most of the characters. Douglas and Esterhas would both later develop throat cancer, although both survived. 

Much as aspects of the film haven’t aged well, but Verhoeven — still alive and working today, in his 80s — is a filmmaker for whom reappraisals have largely been kind, and that extends to some degree to Basic Instinct. Not helping its legacy is Basic Instinct 2, released in 2006 with none of the original cast or crew involved besides Stone; I don’t think I ever saw it. 

  • Stephen Silver
Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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