Instinct (review)

No Matter Where You Go, There You Are

Here we go again. Humans bad; all other animals good. Civilization bad; nature good. I ranted about this attitude in The Thin Red Line, and, be warned, I’m about to do it again.

Dr. Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins, from The Mask of Zorro and The Edge), the “noted anthropologist and primatologist,” is on his way home to Miami from a spell in a hellish Rwandan prison — he was convicted of murdering two park rangers after living amongst a tribe of mountain gorillas for nearly two years. Dr. Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr., from What Dreams May Come), a brilliant, risktaking psychiatrist, lobbies his boss (Donald Sutherland, from Virus) hard for the privilege of doing the competency evaluation on Powell for the American courts.
The Florida prison Powell ends up in isn’t much better than the African one was: In the psychotic ward where Powell is placed, prisoners are overmedicated and abused by guards — think an even more appalling version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Caulder’s job is to find out what happened to Powell in the mountains of Africa (Powell hasn’t spoken since his arrest) — what turned a workaholic college professor into a “wild, dangerous animal”? Caulder is especially interested in Powell because he supposedly offers “a look at man in his primitive state.”

Powell speaks to Caulder, of course, and tells a blissful tale of learning to live among the gorillas, of gaining their acceptance by shedding his human artifacts: a camera, a machete, binoculars, even his penchant for sheltering from the rain. He talks of “coming back to something I had lost long ago and was only now remembering,” of the “peace, kinship, harmony” of the forest. Here’s where the problems begin — not just with this movie but with an attitude that many people hold: Our technology somehow removes us from nature, from the “proper” world in which we would otherwise dwell. Powell speaks of “the machine, the camera that didn’t belong” that he discarded, as it was making his new ape friends nervous. So he resorts to pencil and paper to take notes.

My question is this: Why is a pencil acceptable technology and a camera is not? Pencils do not grow on trees — they are made by humans. Notebooks do not bloom on bushes — they are products of technology. Where is the dividing line between the technologies that are safe for our souls and the technologies that ruin us? And who decides where this line is? Can we apply this same test to nonhuman animals? Beavers build dams. How is that different from humans building dams or houses or nuclear reactors? Are beaver dams unnatural? Since humans are by definition part of nature, isn’t anything we do “natural”? As the comedian George Carlin has noted, maybe the Earth wants plastic, and humans are just its way of making it.

Naturally (pun intended), these are not questions Instinct asks: It is assumed that everyone “knows” that civilization has ruined humanity, and the filmmakers can get away with that assumption because of the general lack of historical and scientific perspective of the American moviegoing audience and basic dissatisfaction many people feel with our way of life and the rate of technological change. Which is the “bad” technology, the technology that will bring about the downfall of civilization, is, I’ve noticed, highly dependent on one’s point of view — whatever one’s current age, the level of acceptable technology seems to be whatever it was when one was a teenager. Anything after that is unnecessary and spells certain doom for us all. Powell says that among the gorillas, he “lived as humans lived 10,000 years ago,” before we settled into cities, as if this was a glorious thing — but see how many people you can find who’d be willing to live without antibiotics, modern dentistry, air-conditioning, and Oreos.

Director Jon Turteltaub and writer Gerald Di Pego mean for Instinct to be ironic: Powell is called a “lost man” by Rwandan newspapers, yet we’re supposed to see him as “found,” as in he’s found his humanity; he’s not the “wild, dangerous animal” he at first appears to be, and turned violent not because of his association with the gorillas (whom those lacking the aforementioned scientific perspective see as dangerous creatures) but because he was defending his gorilla friends, who are in actuality quite gentle beings. And Instinct is genuinely ironic, though I’m sure not in ways intended.

The awful psychotic ward in which Powell is imprisoned is meant to contrast with the bucolic African forest. The ward is a human construct, something that would be unnecessary in a world where humans lived in a 10,000-year-old hunter-gatherer society, Instinct seems to imply. And yet as terrible as the ward is — and it is an absolute failure that Caulder tries his damnedest to improve — it does represent a societal urge to help the less unfortunate among us that individuals don’t always espouse, as was amply demonstrated by the audience with which I saw Instinct, which was quite amused by the sad, tragic cases in the ward. They got a real laugh out of the psychotic who did nothing but bang his head against the wall, and another who was constantly wetting himself. These people would not be getting any help at all in Powell’s “perfect” world.

The biggest irony of all, though, comes from the film’s ultimate theme. Powell vividly demonstrates to Caulder that humans have no real freedom, no real control of their lives — we’re subject to career pressures, for example, which strikes home for Caulder, who knows that the Powell case could make or break him. (That is a valid and accurate point.) Caulder complains to Powell about “the game,” the politics he faces at work — is he cool with this superior, is he in tight with that one? — and thanks Powell for teaching him to live “outside the game.” Powell’s tale of freedom and control among the gorillas has inspired him.

But a genuine “noted anthropologist and primatologist” would know that gorillas — indeed, most primate species — play the same political games that humans do. Powell rhapsodizes about the “tolerance and acceptance” he sees in the silverback gorilla of his tribe, the “alpha male.” But the silverback can afford to be tolerant and accepting — he’s in charge, he’s the big cheese, the big boss, and no one messes with him. And he got to this vaunted position by kissing ass and playing games of I’ll-scratch-your-back — just like humans do. (And there are bullies in the gorilla world, too, just like the guards in Powell’s prison — not that Instinct shows us the darker side of gorilla life.)

Moving back to the forests won’t make us better people, just less comfortable ones. Civilization hasn’t warped us — quite the reverse. We’ve merely created a civilization that suits our instinctive needs.

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