90s Movie Challenge Week 19: Basic Instinct (1992)

It’s 90s time again! This week Paul Childs looks at one of the 90s’ most controversial blockbusters; a film that saw an entire nation of teenage boys hover their finger over the pause button of their VHS recorder. No, it’s not Who Framed Roger Rabbit – from 1992, this week’s film is Basic Instinct.

OK, first off, sorry for the lateness of this week’s 90s Movie Challenge. I’ve been putting off writing this one. I couldn’t bring myself to ask any of the rest of the team to write about it. So, write about it, I suppose I must. Following on from Jane selflessly taking one for the team by watching and writing about Fatal Attraction in last year’s 80s Movie Challenge, here’s my look at 1992’s most notorious thriller in what I am now calling:

Michael Douglas Being Mean To Women, Part 2

Okay, apologies about this but let’s get it over and done with and address the elephant in the room. That scene:

Often voted “The Most Paused Moment In Movie History” by listicle websites, the blink-and-you’ll miss it moment, during Catherine Trammel’s (Sharon Stone) interview by a room full of sweaty detectives (including Jurassic Park‘s Nedry and Eddie “Snot On The Ball” Harris from Major League) has generated almost as much controversy as the rest of the film combined.

The scene is often defended as the leering men, who believe themselves to be the ones in control, finding themselves powerless when a “strong female character” uses her wiles to outwit them, but there’s still something quite sinister about the way it’s framed and shot. Director Paul Verhoeven claims to be neither misogynistic nor homophobic (I’ll come back to that later), coming from the far more tolerant and open culture of the Netherlands. I believe that he believes that – but there’s still something off about the tone of the scene, and the wider film as a whole.

In 2006 Stone reported that the shot had been illicitly filmed, and subsequently used in the film, without her permission. I’ve heard people say “Well she should have worn underwear, then,” but that smacks of victim shaming we often hear that is akin to “She shouldn’t have dressed like that” or “She shouldn’t have got drunk” after someone has been sexually assualted.

This leads me on to what is probably the film’s second most controversial (and infinitely nastier) scene, in which our alleged “hero” Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), driven by lust, rage and alcohol forces himself on his ex-girlfriend Beth (Jeanne Tripplehorn), despite her protestations. There’s no dressing it up as rough sex – this is a rape scene. Curran comes across as a thoroughly despicable, irredeemable jerk. Perhaps that’s the point, but the Hollywood lens still frames him as the handsome, chiselled good guy and the strong women he encounters as unhinged, bisexual, murderous sociopaths. Ugh, I feel dirty just thinking about that scene. It is not, as my wife pointed out when we watched it the other night, sexy in any way whatsoever. And Nick always looks so angry in every sex scene, like properly furious. He did the same thing in Fatal Attraction. It’s not attractive.

Basic Instinct also generated protests and controversy amongst the LGBT community, for its portrayal of bisexual and lesbian characters as both unhinged and liable to be “turned straight” by meeting the right guy.

Perhaps Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas are not entirely to blame for this. Basic Instinct came out at a time when homosexuality was at a turning point. It was not quite the underground scene it had been in the 70s and 80s but neither was it fully accepted as part of mainstream culture. Ellen Degeneres would not come out for another 5 years, AIDS was still the scourge of the LGBT community and it would not be until 2009 that violence against LGBT people would be considered a hate crime in US law. In 1992 the American public were still very wary of “the gay threat” infiltrating the mainstream, maybe more so because it was emerging and beginning to demand equal rights, so to portray a protagonist who was strong, confident, powerful AND bisexual was a massive risk, which it appears the studio was not yet willing to take.

I believe that had this film come out today, it would have been a very different story. But it didn’t, it came out in 1992; a time when Paul Verhoeven was at the height of his powers. Robocop and Total Recall had cemented his reputation as a director of quirky, exciting, funny, and very adult thrillers. Basic Instinct, however, doesn’t feel like either of those films. Sandwiched between those and his subsequent films, Showgirls and Starship Troopers, it stands out like a sore thumb. That trademark satire that is ever-present in those other films is missing entirely here. Characters make jokes but the script often feels like a checklist of catchphrases, one-liners and soundbites than a real discussion – and none of those jokes hit home or made me laugh. It is incredibly po-faced – and if it is making some kind of satirical or political comment about the way women or LGBT people are treated, it does an amazing job of hiding it. Contrast it with Starship Troopers – a film that has so much subtext, there’s hardly any actual text. Much of the humour in Starship Troopers comes from us, the viewer, recognising stereotypes, situations and attitudes being called out as offensive or unnacceptable. I feel like Basic Instinct wanted to convey those same feelings about the topics it addresses, but somehow, totally misses the mark.

As a straight guy, I am still offended by the attitudes to women and the LGBT community portrayed in this film. As a Paul Verhoeven enthusiast, I understand that this film was probably a misguided attempt to call out the very attitudes it seems to accidentally glamorise. As a fan of thrillers, action movies and detective stories, though, Basic Instinct is not actually a bad film. Verhoeven has stated that this was his attempt at a Hitchcock homage. The clues are there, not just in the story, but the visuals. Beautifully shot moments throughout the film reminded me of Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, Rope and others.

The basic premise is intriguing (a novelist, who may or may not be guilty of murder, uses the plotline of her last book as an alibi). The action sequences are thrilling. The cinematography is, in places, stunning. But none of those things can get rid of the bad taste left in the mouth by the issues mentioned above – a bad taste that still remains several days after watching. I wouldn’t say Basic Instinct is a bad film but a poorly executed great idea and a massive missed opportunity to represent those who, at the time, were crying out for representation.

I was an impressionable 17-year-old when I saw this at the cinema and I just didn’t know what to make of it upon leaving. There were no clearly drawn lines, separating the good guys from the bad guys (not necessarily a bad thing in a movie, using Starship Troopers once again as a great example). I found it confusing. Watching it again almost 30 years later, I can’t say that my attitude to it has changed, even though I understand a lot more about adulting and gender politics.

Also, Michael Douglas goes to a nightclub in a woolly v-neck jumper – an unforgivable crime against fashion, and something that I tried myself at Bips on New Year’s Eve 1992 – like Basic Instinct it wasn’t the experience I was expecting. Yes, it was hot and sweaty with lots of flesh on display, but ultimately it wasn’t sexy and it was more than a little uncomfortable.

Still, if there’s one thing I have Basic Instinct to thank for, it’s understanding Star Lord’s “black light” joke at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Well, that’s that over with. I think I need to go and have a shower now.

Come back next week for a far more family-friendly experience with the first of two Disney retrospectives as Louis Thelier takes us to the savannah for a look at a film that, 27 years later, still remains the highest-earning animated film of all time – 1994’s The Lion King 

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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