Congo (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Since the release of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton has become a Hollywood staple. Rights to each new novel are quickly optioned, and the resulting film is on the market as soon as ILM can get the special effects done. Congo is the fourth adaptation of a Crichton novel in two years (following Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, and Disclosure), all of which performed well at the box office. Given its position in the summer blockbuster race, it's unclear how this latest picture will do, but one thing is certain: this is easily the worst filmed version of anything penned by the prolific author.

A group of scientists embark on a safari to the heart of the Congo. Included are Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney), an ex-CIA agent currently working for a huge communications corporation; Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), a primate expert; Herkermer Homolka (Tim Curry), a strange man with a bizarre Romanian accent; Monroe Kelly (Ernie Hudson), a guide who knows all the tricks and short cuts; and Amy, Dr. Elliot's prize student -- a female gorilla. Each member of the expedition has a different reason for coming. Dr. Ross is searching for her missing ex-fiance (Bruce Campbell) and the experimental laser gun he had in his possession when he disappeared. Homolka is looking for the fabled city of Zinj, which hides the diamond mines of King Solomon. And Dr. Elliot is trying to cure Amy's homesickness. This party braves numerous dangers, including attempts to shoot down their air transportation, erupting volcanos, and attacks by a cluster of hungry hippos. But none of this prepares them for their greatest challenge: a troop of extremely vicious and unsociable killer apes that make King Kong look like the Jolly Green Giant.

With Congo, Paramount Pictures is probably hoping to duplicate the success of Universal's Jurassic Park. It isn't going to happen. Gorillas, no matter how mean, don't hold nearly the same fascination as dinosaurs -- especially when they're really people dressed in ape suits. The tongue-in-cheek script by John Patrick Shanley (who wrote Moonstruck) is inferior to the more straightforward Crichton/Koepp collaboration, and director Frank Marshall is no Steven Spielberg (despite having studied under him). Jurassic Park is a solid thriller; Congo is something distinctly less.

In the first place, it's difficult to build tension with so many plot threads. The first half of this film is overburdened with exposition -- but it's background that lacks character development. Ultimately, Amy has a more fully fleshed-out personality than her human companions, and she's a creation of Stan Winston's creature shop. The whiz-bang climax, which features a lot of impressive visual effects and collapsing sets, is nicely-choreographed, but marred by adventure film cliches that get the heroes in and out of life-threatening jams. With its deus ex machina ending, Congo harkens back to typical B-type adventure flicks.

Laura Linney, doing her best Indiana Jones imitation, provides a too-rare strong female lead who never needs a helping hand from her various male cohorts. In fact, there's no question that Dr. Ross is in charge. The actress gives an able performance, and she still looks pretty good after trudging through all that underbrush. Ernie Hudson is equally enjoyable to watch, and seems to be having some fun. Tim Curry, saddled with an unfortunately silly accent, is his usual fatuous self, and Dylan Walsh (last seen as Paul Newman's son in Nobody's Fool) fights a losing battle against being upstaged by Amy.

Congo's greatest asset is that it's the only pure monster movie/adventure of the season, and, even obviously flawed as it is, it still fills a niche left vacant by the Crimson Tides, Bravehearts, and Batman Forevers. The movie has its moments of high-energy excitement (all during the rushed second half), but they don't leave the audience as breathless as they should. Congo is basically a Jurassic Park/King Kong wannabe that never quite makes the cut.

Congo (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 1995-06-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1