Every once in a while, a film comes along that so pushes the envelope of what is permissible to say and show on-screen that it changes the rules for all that follow it. Such cinematic touchstones don't have to be particularly good, but they do have to capture the cultural zeitgeist in such a way that our perception of the film becomes inseparable from its attendant controversy. 'Lolita,' 'Last Tango in Paris,' 'Fatal Attraction' and Madonna's 'Justify My Love' video all come to mind -- each may seem tame now, but that's only because they were so successful in smashing the customs and taboos that preceded them.
Add Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven's 'Basic Instinct' to that list. The plot is likely familiar even to those who haven't seen the film. Sharon Stone stars as Catherine Tramell, a famous novelist of pulp mystery thrillers who also happens to be a brilliant psychotic with a penchant for handcuffs and ice picks. After the murder of her most recent beau, the quick-tempered Det. Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is called in to investigate. In the grand Hitchcockian tradition, Tramell proves to be a devious femme fatale, manipulating Curran and all around him into an elaborate game of murder, drugs and ridiculously over-the-top, acrobatic sex.
The script by Joe Eszterhas gets more and more ludicrous as the film goes on, yet because it is so tightly plotted and well-paced it can't be dismissed as incompetent. As written, Catherine is the Albert Einstein of psychotic murderers, able to anticipate everyone's move ten steps ahead, and somehow control events to such an extent that her lurid fiction becomes violent fact. Yes, the movie asks us to accept some pretty incredible coincidences along the way, but to Eszterhas's credit, at least all the puzzle pieces fit together by the film's end.
But what really separated 'Basic Instinct' from the more routine thrillers of its era was the unabashed glee with which it broke cinematic taboos. Originally given an NC-17 rating for sex and nudity, it was eventually edited down to receive an R-rating. (Lionsgate presents the film here on Blu-ray in its original "Director's Cut" form.) Equally as controversial, the film was widely criticized for its perceived misogyny and homophobia. Inarguably, Verhoeven revels in transforming Catherine into some sort of sexual Olympian -- the much-ballyhooed erotic scenes between Stone and Douglas should have included a trapeze. But what pushes the movie over the edge beyond mere Showtime soft-core is that it doesn't provide any sort of moral comeuppance for Catherine's supposed sexual transgressions. I won't spoil the film's now-famous ending, but for once in a mainstream film, crime may just pay, after all.
Interestingly, the thing that makes 'Basic Instinct' such great camp entertainment is also the same exact attribute that raised the hackles of so many -- that is the fact that Verhoeven and Eszterhas don't even attempt to imagine their female characters with a sensibility even approaching realism. Instead, this is a horny old man's version of sexuality -- all the women are either knife-wielding bisexuals intent on manipulating men, or ice pick-wielding psychotics who find murder a form of foreplay. In the Verhoeven/Eszterhas universe, sex and death aren't even metaphors for each other -- they're one and the same.
Of course, that makes the lurid excesses of 'Basic Instinct' either incredibly offensive or incredibly hilarious, depending on your point of view. I'm of the latter persuasion -- I unabashedly enjoy every trashy minute of this film, no matter how politically incorrect it may be. And to their great credit, Verhoeven and Eszterhas never hide behind the shield of art-school pretension the way so many other filmmakers do when they are trying to pass exploitation off as "Cinema." Verhoeven and Eszterhas may be chauvinists, but at least they don't pretend to be gentlemen.
But for all of its notoriety, 'Basic Instinct' is probably still best remembered as the film that made Sharon Stone a star. And arguably she gives the best performance of her career here (save perhaps her Oscar-nominated turn in Martin Scorsese's 'Casino'), managing to perfectly synthesize the classic Hitchcockian icy blonde with a modern, '90s vulgarity, yet never seem like a victim of Verhoeven and Eszterhas' misogyny. One need look no further than the film's infamous "police interrogation" scene to see the exact moment when Stone cunningly took what was trash on the page and -- with a simple uncrossing of her legs -- ushered in an entirely new cinematic paradigm of female empowerment. When Catherine turns the tables on her male oppressors, it's really Stone completely disarming any leering male who has ever objectified a woman and thought it was a compliment. Stone wields more than just her literal ice pick in 'Basic Instinct' -- she slowly and slyly decimates the myth of patriarchy, one stab at a time.
'Basic Instinct' has been released on disc so many times before that one wonders if there's anyone out there who wants to buy this film yet again. Also an uphill struggle for this first-ever Blu-ray edition is the fact that most of the previous video versions of the film have pretty sub-par in terms of video quality, begging the question: how good can this film really look?
The good news is that Lionsgate has produced a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that is definitely superior to any previous DVD release. A compare with last year's latest standard-def re-issue reveals a nice upgrade, even if it is not incredibly substantial. Most improved is the source. I've found most of previous versions lacking in terms of deep blacks and the quality of the print. The clean-up job here is quite good, with only the dodgy opening credit sequence displaying any overt dirt or blemishes. Grain is also leaner than before, and no longer distracting even in the dark scenes. Blacks seem purer, and contrast has at least some oomph to it.
Colors, however, still leave something to be desired. On the plus side, subtle accents are now much more prominent -- the many shots of San Francisco exteriors now have a nice blue wash to them, and green foliage in particular seems richer. Still, overall, colors seem slightly muted. Sharpness, too, is not up there with the best high-def catalog transfers I've seen. Nor is there a tremendous amount of depth -- the presentation is still somewhat flat. All things considered, this is a strong remaster of a title that probably isn't ever going to look much better than this.
(Note: Yes, the notorious interrogation scene shot of Stone is retained here in all its unrated glory, and high-def more than does the moment justice.)
Lionsgate has also upgraded 'Basic Instinct's audio, though the improvement is not as substantial as it is with the video. The studio includes DTS-HD High-Resolution (not Master Lossless Audio) and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks (in 1.5mpbs and 640kbps, respectively). Both are pretty good -- dynamics are certainly improved over previous editions, but the sense of envelopment is still standard at best.
The biggest beneficiary is Jerry Goldsmith's excellent (and quite underrated) score. It often outclasses the movie, and has a wonderfully warm, brassy feel here. Low bass never really pounds, but at least the highs feel a bit more airy and expanded compared to the cramped old DVD version. Surrounds, though, never come alive. The two car chases in the film have some decent discrete effects in the rears, but pans never feel authentic or transparent. The entire back soundstage is also flatter than the front -- high-end still feels clipped a bit and muffled -- only when the nightclub scene kicks in (with its euro-cheesy techno music) is there ever any heft behind us. In the end, this is a swell enough remix, but nothing more.
'Basic Instinct' has hit VHS, LaserDisc and DVD too many times to count. This is another one of those Lionsgate (previously Artisan, previously LIVE) titles that the studio has milked shamelessly over the years, to the point where most of the extras have been cut up and reprocessed so many times it is hard to remember what came from where, and in what form. Thankfully, I still have two of the old DVD versions (sad, but true), and a direct compare reveals that all of the essential supplements have been retained for this Blu-ray release.
Among the highlights are two audio commentaries. Director Paul Verhoeven and director of photographer Jan De Bont anchor the first one. As you might expect, this one's a hoot, if only because Verhoeven is so energetic and absolutely unrepentant in his love for sex, boobs, Hitchcock, more sex and more boobs. De Bont chimes in with a few bit here or there about the nice lighting, but let's face it -- we want to hear if Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas really had sex on camera, and what Verhoeven thought about all the criticisms of misogyny leveled against his film. He doesn't disappoint, launching almost immediately into a passionate defense of blunt displays of sexuality and the destructiveness of repressive, conservative values. Even if you hate 'Basic Instinct,' Verhoeven's commentary is a fun listen.
Also hilarious is track two, with legengary feminist scholar Camilla Paglia. If you're unfamiliar with her work, she's practically enshrined blond icons like Stone and Madonna in her writing, and waxes near-orgasmically on this track about the cinematic power of Stone in 'Basic Instinct.' While her commentary will likely try the patience of many listeners (she goes on a number of wild tangents, and puts forth several credibility-straining theories), but Paglia is no dummy, and many of her observations are quite astute, particularly her biting critique of the backlash against Stone, who in hindsight clearly threatened established cultural notions of female sexuality. Given my own personal love of the pretentious deconstruction of cinema and pop culture silliness in general, I thought this track was fabulous.
Kicking off the video-based material (alas, it's all in 480i/MPEG-2 video only) is the 30-minute documentary "Blonde Poison." As much a making-of as a dissection of the controversy that greeted 'Basic Instinct,' this feature now suffers from a pretty dated feel. The whole backlash against the film's sex and violence -- as well as charges of homophobia -- would hardly raise an eyebrow today. Also a disappointment is that most of the main principals opted out -- Verhoeven, De Bont and composer Jerry Goldsmith contributed interviews, but Michael Douglas and Stone only appear in old press kit interviews, and Jeanne Tripplehorn and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas are nowhere to be seen. Still, 'Blonde Poison' has a nice little kick of nostalgia to it, so remains worth a watch. (Note that Stone did contribute a new video introduction and interview for the 2006 DVD re-issue of 'Basic Instinct,' but it was mostly to flog the dreaded sequel 'Basic Instinct 2,' so its omission here is hardly fatal.)
The remaining video extras on the disc are three montages culled from the Lionsgate archives. There is 7 minutes of Storyboard Comparisons, presented here as a split screen with the completed theatrical version. Of course, only the kinkiest scenes are included, most notably the opening ice pick massacre and the ridiculous Douglas-Stone sex scene. "Cleaning Up 'Basic Instinct' is an amusing 5-minute side-by-side comparison of the smutty original cut, and the horribly dubbed monstrosity seen on broadcast television. There is also 8 minutes of Screen Tests, including footage of Stone and Tripplehorn.
Last and least is the film's Theatrical Trailer. Unfortunately, it is presented here in 480i/MPEG-2 video only and looks like total crap.
I don't care what the critics say -- 'Basic Instinct' is a hilarious, highly-entertaining trash-fest that ranks up there with Paul Verhoeven's best (and most lurid) epics. And how can you argue with Sharon Stone wielding an ice pick? Lionsgate has issued the flick for the first time on Blu-ray, and has delivered a nice catalog release. The transfer may be as good as this film will ever see, and all of the essential supplements have been retained. Yes, 'Basic Instinct' is a movie that has seen far too many re-releases on disc over the years, but if you're not tired of buying this one, the Blu-ray edition is easily the best version on the market.