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Weekly Alibi Silence of the Apes

Instinct

By Devin D. O'Leary

JUNE 7, 1999:  Just like the next guy, I love a good ape movie. I miss the golden days of Hollywood when all you needed was a couple comedians (Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, Our Gang) and a guy in a ratty ape suit for big laughs. For being an ape movie, though, Instinct is sadly lacking in the simian department. What we're faced with, instead, is a psychological thriller with a heavy emphasis on the word psychological.

Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins stars as a brilliant, if controversial, primatologist named Ethan Powell. Seems that Powell took a seriously "hands on" approach toward understanding mountain gorillas -- he spent years studying the apes, living among them in the wild and eventually becoming accepted as one of their own. Years after disappearing into the jungles of Africa, the nutty professor was discovered again. Unfortunately, he was discovered standing over the bodies of several African natives he had brutally slaughtered. What caused this educated, civilized man to revert to his savage ancestry? That mystery forms the central storyline of Instinct.

After being shipped back to America and cooped up in a prison for the criminally insane, Powell is remanded to the care of eager beaver young psychologist Theo Calder (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Calder's unbridled ambition drives him to unravel the truth behind this headline grabbing madman's murderous rampage. What follows is a battle of wills as the wisdom-bearing madman tries to teach the educated but unenlightened doctor "The Big Truth."

Anthony Hopkins, as always, is great. Adopting a shaggy haircut and ragged beard, Hopkins portrays "the noble beast" with a convincing ferocity. The only problem is that Hopkins' role (with all its madman/psychologist tête-à-têtes) bears an uncomfortable resemblance to his turn as Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs. Still, it's invigorating to see Hopkins do almost anything on screen, and there are few actors today who can convincingly limn both tender and savage with such authority. Cuba Gooding Jr., meanwhile, comes off less well when compared to his polished castmate. Though Gooding did nab an Oscar for Jerry Maguire, his work since has been less than stellar. The serious brio that Gooding brought to his role in Jerry Maguire has been replaced with a sort of fey giddiness that detracts from the gravity of his characters. To my knowledge, Gooding is the only Academy Award winner to hawk diet soda on television, and it hasn't done his credibility much good.

Although billed as an action flick, Instinct spends far less time getting primal in the jungle than it does debating philosophies behind bars. Instinct is based on ("suggested by" says the credit) Daniel Quinn's New Agey thriller Ishmael. In his best-selling novel, Quinn was espousing the same kind of chest-thumping return to primacy that Women Who Run With the Wolves and a whole host of drum-beating "men's encounter groups" have advocated. Powell, you see, didn't just go nuts out in the jungle -- he got in touch with his inner ape. This "humans bad, animals good" mantra is one of Instinct's shakier concepts.

We're expected to believe that Powell is so noble, righteous, and anti-authoritarian because he's deeply in touch with Mother Nature. In truth, animals are just as brutal, savage and violent as humans. That Powell would reject the authority of the hospital and rage against prison bullies is totally wrong-headed. If Powell actually did buy into the whole ape lifestyle, he'd have no problem whatsoever with big alpha males throwing their weight around and controlling weaker members of the society. Ultimately, Instinct tries to act as an indictment of prisons and asylums which lock away the sick, crazed or dangerous elements of society. Although Instinct would have us believe that animals are all kind, caring and peaceful, sick, crazed or dangerous members of animal society would be quickly killed, abandoned or cannibalized. Mother Nature ain't pretty, folks. Just tune into the Discovery Channel.

There's also a great deal of talk about society turning people into "Takers" and a whole rant about how, if we all just returned to our roots as primitive hunter-gatherers, life would be a dream. The idea that murder, war, jealousy, slavery, genocide and wholesale animal slaughter never took place among early peoples is patently ludicrous (ever heard of the Aztecs? The Vikings?). I'm sure Quinn's original book goes into much more anthropological/sociological detail, but the corners Instinct is forced to cut for brevity make the whole "modern man is evil" argument seem spurious at best.

Despite its sketchy philosophical ramblings, Instinct manages a few moments of captivating drama. Maura Tierney (of TV's "NewsRadio") does a nice job as Powell's long-lost daughter. The idea that Powell was estranged from his family long before he went ape is an intriguing one. Instinct would have done better to focus on such real human drama rather than waste time on its pointless "mystery" plot. Why Powell, the ape adoptee, would have gone crazy and killed a group of people in the jungle should be glaringly obvious to anyone.

In the end, we're faced with a movie that is as schizophrenic as its main character -- one part Randall P. McMurphy (the crusading crazy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and one part Tarzan.


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