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Schlock & Awe: CONGO

Schlock & Awe: CONGO

With Jurassic World coming out this week, I thought it appropriate to talk about another big Hollywood movie based on a Michael Crichton novel. While Crichton had been around Hollywood for decades, writing several movies including his directorial debut, Westworld, he was away when Universal bought the rights to his novel Jurassic Park and made it one of the biggest hits ever.

Following that, everybody was ready to option Crichton’s novels and hoping they’d hit pay dirt in the same fashion. Paramount’s attempt at this was 1995’s Congo, which featured a poster brazenly declaring that it’s “Where you are the endangered species.”

Me?! B-b-b-b-but I don’t want to be the endangered species!

There’s an inherent impossibility with trying to follow-up the success of something like Jurassic Park. The impact both culturally and financially was almost too much to handle. And, hey, a movie about killer apes in the jungle based on a book written by the same author — that HAS to be a sure thing, right? Well, it wasn’t. The movie was a flop and took a critical shellacking, but did it deserve to? Roger Ebert gave the film a very favorable review, calling it intentionally hilarious and a fun throwback to jungle adventure movies. Was he onto something, or just on something? I decided to investigate, having not seen the movie since its first cable premiere back in the mid-’90s. The funny thing is — I kind of see where he was coming from.

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From the above trailer, it seems like Congo will be the same kind of scary adventure movie with strange animals as JP, which probably irritated people who went to go see it. Aside from the opening scene, where Bruce Campbell and his crew are stalked and killed by the mysterious gray apes that feature so prominently in the ads, there’s no out-of-the-ordinary evil threats until well into the final act of the movie. They run into some Silverback gorillas and are menaced on the river by hippos, but besides that, no real animal threats. What the movie DOES have a lot of is talking and walking.

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The story in a nutshell: A group of communications people go into the jungle to set up and test a laser. Charlie (Campbell) and his crew stumble upon the ancient ruins of a city near a volcano. Mysteriously, Charlie and all the others are killed by some sort of creature, and when Charlie’s partner/girlfriend Karen (Laura Linney) gets worried, she turns on a video feed to see the camp destroyed and several bodies. Just then, the camera is knocked over by something big and hairy. Charlie’s father and the CEO of the communications company (played by the ever-screaming Joe Don Baker), reveals that the real reason they went there was to find a blue diamond that’s only found near that volcano. Karen decides she wants to go find Charlie and if she happens to find the diamond, all the better.

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Meanwhile, a scientist named Peter Elliott (Dylan Walsh) has spent his whole career attempting to create a contraption that will vocalize sign language. His prize specimen, and friend, really, is a gorilla named Amy who is highly intelligent and, with the machine on her arm, can now speak (Pretty. Amy. Good, good, good. Amy.) and people think that’s really swell. However, Amy has been having nightmares and drawing pictures of her home back in the Congo and so Elliott decides he’s going to just chuck all of his research and bring Amy back. Naturally, nobody wants to fund this, except for the Romanian philanthropist Herkermer Homolka (Tim Curry). Because Homolka is a bit of a massive liar, they don’t have the money to go, but Karen does and, even though Elliott wants her nowhere near this expedition, he agrees when they have no choice.

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Once they reach Africa, they find Zaire to be wholly war-torn and very dangerous to outsiders. The mercenary Capt. Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson), who is constantly at odds with being both black and British, is their guide along with his small band of mercs. Together, they go deeper and deeper into the jungle, first being shot at with bazookas while in their airplane (Munro and Karen have to shoot flares at the heat-seekers), and then encountering silverback gorillas, hippos, and a tribe of “ghost men.” Finally, they reach the lost city of Zinj, which Homolka has been looking for all his life, but it’s being guarded by an ancient and aggressive species of apes.

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Now, there is certainly a whole lot of stupid going on here. Pretty much everything having to do with Amy and Dr. Elliott is annoying and insipid. Walsh became a really good actor, but he seems completely out of his element here and, as the central figure, doesn’t do much to help things. It also isn’t great that his whole ethos appears to be “that’s impossible, apes couldn’t be this aggressive.” Clearly, they are, dude. His relationship with Amy is where most of the sentimentality of the film comes in, and it really doesn’t work at all. It also doesn’t make sense why he’d just make a scientific breakthrough and then just go “oops, but my gorilla is sad; better send her back home.” The ancient apes stuff at the end also doesn’t really work, but that might just be because the costumes aren’t that convincing.

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What DOES really work in the movie, I think, are all the tongue-in-cheek adventure movie moments. If viewed from the perspective of making a throwback 1930s jungle adventure, I think parts of it really stand up. Ernie Hudson’s whole character is marvelous and is the perfect fortune-hunter who also happens to have a complex and interesting moral compass. While she seems a little outmatched, Linney does a pretty good job as the woman with the shadowy past who is certainly capable of effing up some ess in the course of the journey. Other actors like Curry, Campbell, Baker, Joe Pantoliano, and Delroy Lindo also clearly know what kind of movie they’re making. It’s been talked about a lot, but Lindo’s reading of “Stop eating my sesame cake!” is really wonderful, if you realize you’re watching an intentionally silly movie.

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There are too many good people involved in the making of this movie for it to have just been a colossal failure. It was directed by Frank Marshall, whose directorial efforts before this were Arachnophobia and Alive, and whose producing credits, along with his partner and wife Kathleen Kennedy are numerous and impressive. Marshall was, for this film, nominated for Worst Director at the Razzies and Best Director at the Saturn Awards… do we see a problem here? And the screenplay was written by John Patrick Shanley, for God’s sake! He won an Oscar for writing Moonstruck and he wrote and directed Joe Versus the Volcano, not to mention all the great plays he’s written on a 30+ year career.

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Now, I couldn’t possibly go so far as to call Congo a good movie, but it’s certainly not the whole hog disaster that a lot of people believe it to be. Ernie Hudson has gone on record calling this his favorite of his own roles, saying some people get it and some people don’t. There’s clearly something to get, and I do think, upon this most recent watch, that there is something more there than a failed attempt at a Jurassic Park follow-up, although that’s what Paramount probably wanted it to be, minus the failure part. If it had been billed the way it ought to have been, as a fun, cheesy throwback, I think it might have done considerably better. As it is, they made toys of it for nothing.

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