A dramatic journey through the dreck we all know and love.
Written By Zak Attack
Why Did I Watch This?
After Jurassic Park blew up the box office in 1993 (even with the inflated IMAX 3D tickets of today, it remains in the top 25 grosses of all time), studios were frantic to find the next big sci-fi action adventure. Two years later, they unleashed another movie based on a Michael Crichton novel: Congo. It’s been exactly 20 years ago since the jungle tale hit theatres (June 9, 1995) and Hollywood’s made three Jurassic Park sequels. Jurassic World came out this weekend. Somehow they haven’t made another Congo film yet.
In addition to the relationship to Crichton and the Jurassic Park franchise, we at Action A Go Go were saddened to learn of the passing of Mary Ellen Trainor. Just by virtue of being the mom in The Goonies AND The Monster Squad, anyone who grew up in the 80’s felt like they had a familial relationship with her. But her roles in Die Hard and the Lethal Weapon series (I wonder if she was buddies with Al Leong) solidified her as an important 80’s action movie presence. Mary Ellen Trainor often felt like the only real human when a bunch of crazy nonsense was going on around her. She only has, like, 2 lines in Congo.. but it’s another topical tie-in nonetheless.
I watched this one when I was a kid as part of post-Jurassic Park enthusiasm. I didn’t like it then either. However, it has been awhile, so let’s see if Congo stands up as being more than just sesame cakes.
How Did I Watch It?
Ugh, I choked down the better part of a Bota Box of cabernet sauvignon at 2:00am and boy was I feeling it the next morning. It’s a pretty dry wine and a little bland– oh my God, just thinking about it makes me feel nauseous. Let’s move on, shall we?
This was buried deep in my Queue backlog at about #3,210 or so… fortunately Congo is available via Netflix’s streaming service so it didn’t take up precious space on the DVD Queue for too long.
What Did I Watch?
After communications are lost with a diamond-hunting expedition in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the group leader’s ex-fiancée, Dr. Karen Ross (multiple Oscar winner Laura Linney), launches a secondary expedition to find out what happened. Her employer and ex-future-father-in-law (these are already dumb character relationships) is the CEO of TraviCom, a communications company interested in this remote area of Africa where it’s rumored that large blue diamonds are in abundance. They want these diamonds so they can power lasers as is a communications company’s wont.
Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh) is a primatologist who has fitted his research subject, a gorilla named Amy, with equipment that converts her sign language into audible speech. Think Koko the gorilla with a Power Glove designed by Stephen Hawking. When she starts painting pictures of the jungle, he decides she’s on the verge of reverting to her primal, non-sign language speaking state. So he and his cowardly assistant (played by Oscar-winning writer/producer Grant Heslov) work on funding an expedition to drop her off in Africa and hope she can fend for herself.
Tim Curry plays Herkermer Homolka, a Romanian guy whose name sounds like someone choking on a pistachio. He offers to fund the expedition because he claims that he simply wants to help Amy’s cause, but the shady accent makes it clear that he has ulterior motives. Homolka sees hints in Amy’s paintings that she has seen a sculpture that is known to “guard” the same blue diamond mines that TraviCom is after. He’s not trying to build lasers though, just get rich. Dr. Peter Elliot thinks he already has his golden ticket to the jungle in Homolka when he rebuffs Dr. Karen Ross’ attempts to finagle her way onto the vessel (using Amy’s return as a cover story to get to the mines). Fortunately the script gods jump in right then and Homolka admits that he has run out of money. Dr. Ross swoops in to fund the rest, resulting in three different players with separate goals on the same trip.
Then they meet up with a guide played by Ernie Hudson, and almost nothing happens for awhile. Outside of a couple rockets that get shot at their plane by the Congolese military, they don’t encounter any danger until over an hour and fifteen minutes into the film. There are plenty of fake-outs though. The expedition loses communications (there’s a lot of that with TraviCom, maybe they’re owned by Time Warner, HEY-O!!!), but it doesn’t truly matter all that much.
Another “fake-out” occurs when an extended scene of the heroes rafting on a lake is interrupted by something in the water! It turns out to be some hippopotami that look like they’re on loan from an animatronic safari at Disney World. The hippos capsize a single raft, and that’s it. Then a “ghost tribe” creeps around their camp in the jungle… and they turn out to be totally amicable. They have actually found a survivor from the original expedition and, hey it’s one-time Oscar nominee and overall fantastic character actor John Hawkes!
After all this trudging in the jungle, they finally make their way to the place with all the diamonds that turns out to be guarded by mutant gorillas trained to kill anyone that happens by. It’s continually mentioned that “humans are dangerous… gorillas are very gentle” by Dr. Elliot, despite the fact that real gorillas are fairly territorial by nature (he even gets confronted by a non-mutant, alpha silverback in a decidedly not gentle manner). But it wouldn’t be a Michael Crichton book without some overly expository, scientific dialogue that somehow gets turned on its head by a discovery near the end of the second act.
At this point, Amy still isn’t hanging out with the perfectly normal family of gorillas yet, despite the fact that this is the only reason the trip even exists in the first place. After a brightly colored firefight where the bad gorillas attack under cover of night, they all agree to simply depart in the morning so they’re not ripped apart by gray, mutant apes. A great moment during this scene is when Dr. Ross tells one of the expedition to turn off his flashlight, presumably so they will no longer attract the attention of the diamond-guarding beasts. However, she immediately turns on a garish set of purple floodlights and bright blue lasers, as if to say “these will look way cooler!”
Dr. Ross, at this point, has abandoned finding her ex-beau because they’ve been attacked by gorillas twice. So even though they all agree to leave the area in the morning, when they wake up Homolka is gone. Instead of just leaving him, (you know, because of the killer gorillas) they begin a search where they ultimately find him in a cave surrounded by diamonds. Or as they say “It’s a geode… a large diamond.” which I’m almost positive isn’t the definition of “geode”. Of course, they are yet again surrounded by killer gorillas but they use the diamonds as laser powering rocks and just start setting fire to dudes in bad gorilla suits.
Although the movie has established that the gorillas were literally bred to become vicious and unthinking killing machines, Amy comes in and helps scare a few away by calling them ugly. No joke, she jumps off a rock, starts cradling Dr. Elliot in her arms, and repeats “Ugly gorillas. Ugly.” The bad apes kind of look at each other like, “What the Hell is this lady doing?” while backing off.
Then the script gods roll in again and detonate a volcano, destroying all of the diamonds and gorillas while our heroes get away through the cheapest jungle set since Legends of the Hidden Temple.
With the tension diffused and Amy unceremoniously dropped off with some good guy gorillas, our surviving heroes of Dr. Ross, Dr. Elliot, and Captain Kelly (Curry’s Homolka had his head bashed in by gorillas, unfortunately) float away on a hot-air balloon. Dr. Ross had been threatening to renege on her deal with her boss if she ever got the impression that he cared more about the diamonds than his son’s life (even though it’s clear from the opening scene when she questions his humanity and he explicitly states, “I’ll be human later”). She finally gets the hint and decides to shoot down his satellite with the diamond-laser and then throw the diamond out of the hot air balloon. The End.
Oh look it’s the credits… the Oscar winning writer of Moonstruck and Doubt adapted this screenplay?! What in the Hell went wrong with this movie?
In any movie that features Bruce Campbell, the answer to “What was the highlight of the film?” will always be Bruce Campbell. He only has a scene at the beginning as Dr. Ross’ ex-fiancée, and its his attack via gorillas that is the impetus for the entire movie. Although the way he was written was a touch strange. Here are a few samples of his dialogue:
“Eureka and all that! I found the bloody thing!”
(After the people on his video conference notice a tremor) “That was about the usual. This whole place does the shimmy.”
“It’s acting very much like a volcano, thank you very much.”
“I have a Johnny-on-the-spot phasic laser.”
It sounds like he was written to be British, right? That’s not how real people talk (As we all know, British people are fictional) Don’t get me wrong, he sells the lines as well as he can… but what kind of speech patterns are those? His father is played by a thoroughly American Joe Don Baker, which makes it all the more strange.
Regardless, Bruce gets barely more than a glorified cameo since he’s dispatched after the first few minutes. The good news is, after finding his colleague’s severed eyeball in his hand and being attacked by a killer gorilla, he gets to let out a good ol’ fashioned The Evil Dead-quality scream.
Clearly the worst fact about this movie is that Bruce Campbell didn’t play Dylan Walsh’s lead character. Okay… that’s not actually the biggest drawback to the film, but it’s indicative of a much larger issue. This is a seriously stupid b-movie. It even follows in the tradition of the 50’s African safari adventures that often had a woman trekking through the wilderness to find her lost husband (1954’s Killer Leopard) and being attacked by killer apes (uh, 1953’s Killer Ape). In that case, the larger than life presence of Bruce Campbell’s chiseled jaw is exactly what the movie needs.
Tim Curry knows what kind of movie he’s in, and there’s enough relish with every utterance of his over-the-top accent to prove it. Ernie Hudson kind of knows, but his humorous and capable jungle expert isn’t placed front and center enough to make any difference. Laura Linney, in fact, ends up playing the action hero of this picture… but she’s playing the role straight in a way that betrays the campy kitsch of the killer gorilla movie around her.
Congo doesn’t know whether it wants to subvert the tropes of goofy adventure movies of the 50’s or embrace them, which explains why audiences were so put-off by the laughable special effects and subpar performances. According to IMDb trivia, the role of Captain Munro Kelly is one of Ernie Hudson’s favorites. He even introduces himself with a fun/hokey line where he admits, “I’m the great white hunter on this trip… but I happen to be black!” However, without any sexual undercurrents with the female lead or a contentious relationship with the villain, it feels like he’s alone in the movie. It’s a charming lead performance pushed to the supporting backseat for Linney and Walsh, who seem to actually think they’re making a serious film, despite acting opposite a drunk, animatronic gorilla.
Was It Worth Watching?
The juxtaposition between the above pictures of a bloodily detached eyeball and a talking primate drinking a martini pretty much sums up why this movie doesn’t work. When Congo was released it was pretty common to call out the terrible special effects, but if this had been a WETA joint from the past 5 years with Andy Serkis as Amy the Talking Gorilla it would still be a silly, poorly plotted movie.
But the gorilla suits didn’t do it any favors either.
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd Grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
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All images courtesy of The Kennedy/Marshall Company