The Film: Congo (1995)
The Principles: Laura Linney, Dylan Walsh, Tim Curry, Ernie Hudson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Grant Heslov, and Joe Don Baker. Directed by Frank Marshall. Based on a novel by Michael Critchton.
The Premise: A corporate scientist, Dr. Karen Ross (Linney), searching for her company’s lost expedition team, joins forces with Dr. Peter Elliott (Walsh), a primatologist who is taking his talking (sign language) gorilla Amy to visit her homeland in the Congo. Turns out that is right where Ross’ missing team was. It is also where a hidden temple full of jewels and shit is, which is why the Romanian philanthropist Herkermer Homolka (Curry) is along for the trip; though the others don’t know that. After surviving several travails, including a hippo attack, the team arrives at the temple. Jokes on them though, cause there is a race of freaky gorillas there who kill anyone who trespasses.
Is It Good: I was going to compare the film to the actual Congo region of Africa. But that’s really unfair to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sure, over 5 million people have died there since 1998 in their unending wars, but Congo is a whole different kind of atrocity (mmm, poor taste movie critic joke). Congo hit theaters during that sweet spot in my teen years where my opinions were all over the place. It is an era I find particularly interesting to revisit now, as adult me often goes 180 degrees on teen me when it comes to film assessment. Sometimes teen me was a real shithead. Thinking back on Congo – with its preposterous story, goofy cast, and lasting critical derision – the film seemed like the sort of bonkers thing I might find secretly genius now. Such was not the case. If anything I hated the film more now than I did in 1995.
This movie is an obnoxious mess, and not in any kind of fun way. What’s so frustrating – and why in my memory I thought it might be fun to revisit – is that all the pieces for a wacko romp are right there. It is an awesomely ridiculous concept for a movie. The only reason it could land the budget that it did is because it was based on a Michael Critchon book, and was being made by Frank Marshall (who founded Amblin Entertainment with his wife Kathleen Kennedy and some guy named Steven Spielberg). A man with a talking gorilla (she speaks using a device that turns her hand signs into audible words), Ernie Hudson doing a cheesy British accent, Tim Curry doing an even cheesier Romanian accent, and some guys with guns go fight evil silver gorillas that guard a hidden temple full of riches in the jungle? How can that movie not be fantastically stupid and entertaining? Turns out it is pretty easy…
Congo should have been something of an Aliens rip-off. Both films feature of team journeying into a strange and unfamiliar world to investigate the disappearance of the people there before them, only to encounter a hostile species determined to kill every last one of them. But with evil gorillas. What the movie actually is, though, is a prolonged and increasingly boring travelogue. It takes forever for our heroes to even get into the goddamn jungle, as we’re forced to sit through scene after scene of the team coming together, and then more scenes of the new team wheeling and dealing with the local military to get across boarders and check points and other things that have nothing to do with battling evil gorillas or jungle adventure. With any high-concept movie (or any movie for that matter), as a filmmaker you need to ask yourself — what is the core pleasure of this film? How would you describe it to someone in a couple sentences? What is the hook? What kind of movie is this? Based on the simple rules of structure, Congo is ostensibly a horror movie. It begins with evil apes murdering a bunch of people, and it ends with evil apes murdering a bunch of people. You’d be safe to assume it is a movie about evil apes murdering people. Wrong. The evil gorillas kill Bruce Campbell in the film’s opening scene (which is a shame unto itself), then they literally don’t appear again until the climax. Why? Because it takes until the climax for our heroes to get to the hidden temple. So really the quick pitch for Congo is: a team of scientists and a cute gorilla find it difficult to navigate their way in the Congo. Who the hell wants to see that movie? Maybe if their journey was fraught with high-adventure shenanigans, but it isn’t. There is a cheesy fun scene in which their boats are attacked by hippos while venturing down a river (like Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride). But that’s really all we get, aside from some cutesy interactions between Amy and some wild, normal gorillas. The movie also could have worked, I suppose, as a light-adventure family film focusing on Amy’s story — minus the evil gorillas at the end. But the movie doesn’t even exploit Amy appropriately. She’s a shockingly dull character. But she’s talking gorilla for Christsake! Run with that ball!
Based on its own absurd concept, Congo should have dumped our heroes at the temple by at least the 30-minute mark. Then they could’ve mucked about the temple for a bit, investigating and finding corpses, until one or more of them suddenly goes missing. Then they realize they’re trapped, and like Aliens, must figure out how to hold off their mysterious attackers. Critchon’s novel even shares a similar scene with the director’s cut of Aliens — in which our heroes set up a bunch of motion controlled guns around their camp that the evil gorillas start setting off. I’m not suggesting that increasing the number of gorilla attacks would be a recipe for a good movie, but certainly something that might reach a level of shameless entertainment like Deep Blue Sea. I also would have kept the detail from Critchon’s book that the evil gorillas carry around huge stone paddles, which they use to squash people’s heads. I mean, come on, that’s priceless. I want that movie! And the scenes that do feature the evil gorillas are fittingly good-times. Which only demonstrates what an odd blunder it was to not feature them more.
Is It Worth A Look: No. Maybe you’re like me and have been curious to revisit it. Don’t. Just don’t. It is boring, and it doesn’t work as so-bad-its-good ironic entertainment. The only thing that actually works as so-bad-its-good is Tim Curry. His Romanian accent is spellbindly atrocious. He’s also seems to be doing more of a Hungarian accent, but that’s beside the point, because it is a terrible Hungarian accent too. It is seriously hard to believe that people were listening to Curry on set and thought, “This is working.” He sounds like a teenager approximating an accent for a school play.
Random Anecdotes: The “diamonds” used for the scenes during the climax of the movie were actually Herkimer Diamonds borrowed from the Herkimer Diamond Mines of Middleville, New York. They were the only gems that would look enough like diamonds and be that large. The diamond that was thrown out of the balloon at the end of the movie was lost, and so could not be returned to Herkimer Diamond Mines.
Cinematic Soulmates: Aliens, Gorillas in the Mist, King Solomon’s Mines, Children of a Lesser God.