In an early scene in Instinct, released by Disney's Buena Vista Films, we're told that a brilliant primatologist named Ethan Powell (played by Anthony Hopkins) is being brought back to the United States from Rwanda, where for several years he has been engaged in a close study of mountain gorillas. Actually, his study has gone a bit beyond close: For the past four years, Powell has done what no other scientist -- indeed, what no other man -- has ever done. (Except, of course, for Tarzan, who, quite coincidentally, is featured in another Disney picture that opens only two weeks from now.) Powell has abandoned human society to eat, sleep, and live exclusively in the wild with an extended family of great apes. During this time, he has had no contact whatsoever with humankind -- not with his scientific colleagues or even his own daughter, Lyn (Maura Tierney).
As it turns out, Powell's return to civilization is not at all voluntary. While in the bush, the doctor's gorilla family is brutally attacked by a group of Rwandan rangers. Rather than allow the animals to be slaughtered, Powell springs to their defense and, in the process, kills two of the rangers. As a result, he is being returned to the States and incarcerated in a maximum-security hellhole in Harmony Bay, Fla., where he will remain until it is determined whether or not he is sane enough to stand trial.
The task of determining the state of Powell's mental health falls into the eager hands of Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a psychiatrist who sees the high-profile case as his ticket to media stardom. If he's lucky and can succeed in drawing Powell out of his silence, there may even be a best seller in it for him.
What Caulder hopes Powell will be able to tell him is difficult to express. It is the secret of the animal mind; the source of the animals' kingly serenity. The bulk of the film is comprised of the sessions between the ambitious psychiatrist and his reluctant subject. At its heart, the movie is an examination of the forms and nature of power: who has it (or thinks they have it) and at what price. Everywhere in the film, these power relationships are laid out. The warden, for example, has power over his guards, the guards over their prisoners, and the stronger prisoners over the weaker. As much as Caulder would like to think that he holds the upper hand in his sessions with Powell, he is eventually forced to concede that any superiority is largely an illusion.
That our control over life hangs by the slenderest of threads is a dominant theme during this last decade of the millennium. But about the most that Instinct deserves credit for is making a somewhat glancing reference to the idea. It makes the illusion of sense, and nothing more.
Director Jon Turteltaub and screenwriter Gerald DiPego teamed up earlier on the equally dubious Phenomenon; what they set up here is a comparison between this "jungle" of a prison, where the strong tyrannize the weak, and the real jungles of Africa.
As the devolving primatologist, Hopkins builds his character mainly out of recycled bits from other performances, primarily The Silence of the Lambs (though his wig looks like the one Sean Connery wore in The Rock). And, in the movie's most ludicrous scene, there's even a tiny hint of Picasso as the prisoner uses chalk to sketch out the history of the world on the wall of his cell. With actors as dynamic as Hopkins and Gooding facing off against each other, it's impossible for the picture to be completely without fireworks. (Donald Sutherland has a tiny role as Gooding's mentor psychiatrist.) But Gooding's role is too dour for him to express his lusty extroversion.
Unfortunately, fragments of earlier performances aren't the only things being recycled. Slap-happy parallels to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are scattered everywhere. The most tortured, however, is made at the end of the picture, when Powell coaches his cellmates into staging a diversion so that he can make his escape. I won't give away the ending, but in this evolutionary model, more than one link is still missing.