NEW YORK — `BASIC Instinct," a mostly routine thriller with a larger-than-usual quotient of sex and violence, has momentarily captured the attention of some moviegoers through a combination of clever marketing and pre-release controversy.
Now that it has arrived at neighborhood theaters, it isn't likely to stay in the limelight for long. Its basic ingredients are stale and familiar; the "spider woman" scenario, with its blending of sex and death, has been a Hollywood staple since the film noir craze of the 1940s.
And there's little to distinguish its filmmaking beyond the willingness of director Paul Verhoeven to push his lurid preoccupations a little further than he ordinarily does.
So why has "Basic Instinct" attracted notice?
Advance protests from the gay community, concerned about its depiction of murderous lesbians, gave the picture "name recognition" among portions of the population who wouldn't otherwise have bothered to remember its title. And star Michael Douglas hit the promotional trail, telling what it was like doing scenes with sex and nudity.
Unlike some movies that pale beside their own publicity, "Basic Instinct" does pay off on its sensationalistic promises. Its use of nudity and simulated sex is more extreme than you'll find in most Hollywood pictures, although the need for an * rating keeps the action within current standards for not-quite-pornography fare. And the picture is unusually shameless in its equation of homosexuality with nastiness and obsession.
But this is not one of those movies that illustrate a new trend or "capture the spirit of the moment" better than other specimens of its sorry breed. Fortunately, the more film-savvy branches of the media have not been fooled into giving the movie more credit than it deserves.
In its weekly box-score of film reviews, the show-business newspaper Variety headlined its March 23 article " 'Basic' blasted nationwide," and went on to report that a majority of critics "voted thumbs down" on the picture. It's sure to pull in many box-office dollars in its first weeks, thanks to its advertising budget and Mr. Douglas's popularity, but don't expect much staying power.
The story of "Basic Instinct" revolves around two tried-and-true character types: a veteran cop with personal and professional problems and a seductive woman who may have committed a vicious murder he's trying to solve. Secondary characters include the cop's girlfriend, a police psychologist, and the suspect's girlfriend, a lesbian who attempts a brutal killing of her own.
The acting is uneven, with so-so performances by Douglas as the cop and Sharon Stone as the could-be killer. Jeanne Tripplehorn and George Dzundza are more convincing as (respectively) the psychologist and the cop's best buddy.
Joe Eszterhas's screenplay is wobbly at the beginning and thoroughly out of kilter at the end.
The movie's best asset, an occasional penchant for self-parody, is director Verhoeven's contribution - but even here the picture is not very impressive, falling short of Mr. Verhoeven's own "Robocop" and "Total Recall" for touches of unexpected humor.
If there is one lesson to be learned from "Basic Instinct," it lies in the depiction of its main female character. Women have been gaining stronger and more assertive roles in movies lately, and aside from her possibly criminal tendencies, the murder suspect played by Ms. Stone is strong and assertive indeed - a successful novelist with a high IQ in addition to her beautiful appearance and alluring manner.
Instead of celebrating such women by making them heroines, movies like "Basic Instinct" feel compelled to link them with sadistic aggression, as if to punish them for being more capable than the men who appear in their stories.
There's nothing new about this ploy, or about much else in "Basic Instinct," but it's disheartening to see that Hollywood is still afflicted by its age-old anxiety toward strong, confident women - and still reliant on the same tired devices for reassuring male audiences that a self-assured and self-sustaining woman must surely be a treacherous and dangerous woman, too. Rated R for violence and sensuality, and for drug use and language.