Far from good but definitely not boring, Frank Marshall’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel is a sick day viewing that deserves its due.
Who remembers their first adaptation disappointment? That movie, miniseries, or TV show based upon a book that you loved, that you eagerly anticipated, and were ultimately hurt by? Mine was a movie called Congo. Having read and enjoyed the book on a whim (it had a spooky gorilla on the cover!), I was delighted to see a trailer for the movie, and rented it with high hopes in my heart.
Killer gorillas! Lost cities! Jungle adventure! And what have I carried with me for 25 years? Well, a gorilla drinks a martini. But! Though Congo ultimately fails entirely as an adaptation of the novel, it manages to carve itself a little niche as a goofball adventure romp that never quite reaches its full potential.
Based on Michael Crichton’s 1980 novel, Congo wants to be a lot of things. It wants to be a science-fiction tale of technology and language and a return to action-adventure features (Crichton was inspired by H. Rider Haggard). However, it stumbles in the shadow of its Crichton big brother, a little motion picture called Jurassic Park. Congo’s general plot is fairly basic despite featuring a talking gorilla, King Solomon’s mines, evil grey gorillas, and Tim Curry saying “Di-a-monds!” for about 90 minutes. It’s silly, not at all scary, and the audience is hard-pressed to care at all about any of the characters’ motivations. And somehow, it manages to be a great time all the same.
Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney) is a communications scientist whose ex-fiancé, Charles (Bruce Campbell, in a cameo so short it should be illegal), has gone missing in the Congo on a diamond-hunting mission for their telecommunications company. Charles’ father (Joe Don Baker) is the head of said company. He demands that Ross go after his missing son, though he’s secretly more concerned with Ross getting her hands on some mythical blue diamonds for use in satellites (despite satellites not working like that).
The last transmission from the missing team featured a collection of dead bodies and a brief glimpse of what appeared to be a grey gorilla, though no one pays much attention to that, despite it seeming extremely important. As such, Ross buys her way onto a plane headed to Ugandawith Dr. Peter Elliott (Dylan Walsh) and his gorilla, Amy (Misty Rosas/Shayna Fox). Amy is able to talk thanks to a device that translates her American Sign Language, and Elliott is returning Amy to the wild. This isn’t without bumps, given a later scene where Amy enthusiastically greets a group of wild gorillas in English, and they stare blankly at her and edge away.
Elliott’s mission was to have been funded by Herkermer Homolka (Curry), a Romanian philanthropist, but when Homolka’s money runs out, they’re forced to bring Ross (and her stacks of hundreds) along. Surprise! Homolka isn’t actually a philanthropist. He’s a fortune hunter seeking King Solomon’s mines. The Homolka character isn’t in the book, and as a result never entirely meshes with the rest of the story.
Curry is funny and memorable in the role, but what is he doing there? He’s an extra level the story doesn’t need, there to translate some hieroglyphics and whisper longingly about lost cities. It’s hard to acknowledge that a great character isn’t a necessary one, but Congo will do that to you.
Once in Africa, the movie flounders for a long time in a misguided “aren’t these countries crooked?” storyline, bringing in Joe Pantoliano and Delroy Lindo in brief parts as an American black market representative and a corrupt government official, respectively. There’s talk of coups and assassination attempts and cracks about how many governments they’ve gone through, and the movie isn’t interested in any discussion of how these situations came to be.
Is it colonialism? Outside interference? There’s no time for that sort of introspection in Congo. The movie doesn’t approach these issues from any deeper standpoint than “the white main characters are scared.” Well, Elliott and his assistant, Richard (Grant Heslov), are. Ross is sitting in on coffee with Delroy Lindo and handling the bribes along with the newest member of the team, guide Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson).
It’s hard to overemphasize what a better movie this would be if it stopped pretending that Linney and Hudson aren’t the leads. Walsh is a placeholder, an affable white guy who has floppy hair and a nice smile, but any number of actors could be slotted into that role and the film wouldn’t miss a beat. Hudson gets to be suave, funny, and a man of action. Linney is a no-nonsense blonde professional in a definite “Laura Dern as Dr. Sattler” mold (while making the role her own), while Walsh makes the aforementioned martinis for the gorilla.
Once they leave Uganda, the team heads to Zaire, where they locate the remains of the previous team and discover the Lost City of Zinj, Homolka’s life-long dream. And who should they find in the ruins of Zinj? Why, the killer gorillas, of course! Remember those killer gorillas from before? In short order, every member of the team sans the main three are killed. Homolka, despite learning that the grey gorillas were bred to protect the diamond mines at all cost, scoops up handfuls of them and is summarily dispatched. Amy the Gorilla, on the other hand, helps save the day by yelling at the “bad gorillas.” Once more, she essentially confuses her wild cousins long enough to buy some time.
Ross then uses one of the diamonds to power a laser gun, killing many of the grey gorillas before a volcano erupts, killing the rest, and burying the city and mines forevermore. Oh, and she destroys Charles’ father’s satellite with the same gun, since he reveals that he cared more about the “di-a-monds” than he did his late son. Amy stays behind with the wild, good gorillas from before, who have decided that she’s okay even though she was raised entirely in captivity, speaks ASL, and drinks alcohol.
Needless to say, I really cannot emphasize enough that a gorilla drinks a martini on an airplane in this movie. However, some other delights that occur in Congo include… a hippo attack! Then there’s a full moon that lasts about a week. And who could forget all the diamond mines where jewels are thrown casually about the place, since that makes them easier to scoop up? Oh, and again, lasers.
But despite Congo the novel being 10 years older than Jurassic Park, Congo the movie was released two years later. Also, while it was in development longer, it can’t escape trying to replicate the beats of the earlier film. It’s to Congo’s detriment that it never gets a chance to stand on its own, weighed down as it is by its adventure story predecessors. The ‘90s produced seven (seven!) big-screen adaptations of Crichton’s works, and Congo has long been relegated to a Sunday afternoon cable curiosity, somewhere under The Lost World: Jurassic Park but well above Rising Sun.
It’s time for Congo to get its due, to be embraced as the “movie day at school”/sick day comfort watch that it is. Laura Linney uses a laser gun to kill evil gorillas. Could there be more evil gorillas? Could said gorillas be more evil? Maybe some more violence from the evil gorillas bred specifically for that? Sure, all of these things would help, but Congo is what it is, and sometimes an hour and a half with a talking gorilla is a pretty good way to spend an afternoon.