Gorillas in the Mist (United States, 1988)

August 06, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Gorillas in the Mist Poster

It's possible that Michael Apted may be the greatest documentarian currently working (although Errol Morris' followers might disagree). His Up Series stands as a cinematic hallmark - something that will probably never be equaled if only because of the amount of time required to do so. Apted, of course, has not solely spent his half-century of behind-the-camera experience toiling away on his mega-opus. He has also developed a significant resume of feature films - one that includes such diverse titles as Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, Nell, a James Bond movie (The World Is Not Enough), and the third chapter of The Chronicles of Narnia (Voyage of the Dawn Treader¬). Although not as adept with narrative productions as he is with those in the documentary realm, Apted possesses the competence with which to elevate a mediocre story into a better-than-mediocre final product. This is the case with Gorillas in the Mist. A significantly fictionalized account of the life of conservationist Dian Fossey, the movie has been widely criticized by almost every stakeholder for its inaccuracies. Nevertheless, setting aside the historical record, what makes it to the screen is engaging, although not overwhelming.

At the time of Fossey's 1985 murder, her book, Gorillas in the Mist, had already been optioned and was in the early stages of pre-production. The movie that reached the screen three years later was different from the one initially envisioned. Fossey's death gave the story a different, darker ending and allowed screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan to incorporate information from other sources and to compress the time line. In real life, Fossey spent 18 years in Africa, with her odyssey beginning in 1967 when she founded the Karisoke Reasearch Center in Rwanda and ending in 1985 when she was killed. In the movie, the exact time period is unclear. Fossey arrives in Rwanda in 1967, but it appears she dies during the '70s.

For Sigourney Weaver, the opportunity to play Fossey offered a chance to move as far away from Ghostbusters and Aliens as possible. Like Harrison Ford in Witness, this was an opportunity to work on a "prestige" production with a respected director and make something that would appeal to a different sort of audience. Ultimately, Gorillas in the Mist didn't live up to its potential. There are some wonderful, evocative sequences but the screenplay becomes bogged down in the melodrama of a clichéd, dead-end romantic relationship and the thriller elements are needlessly beefed up. The best scenes are those that focus on the interaction between Fossey and the gorillas (especially the male Digit); more of those would have made for a richer experience.

The film opens with Fossey lobbying Dr. Louis Leakey (Iain Cuthbertson) for an opportunity to lead an expedition on his behalf (funded by National Geographic) to the Congo for the purposes of studying the diminishing breed of mountain gorillas. Fossey's persistence breaks through Leakey's initial resistance, and she is soon on her way to Africa. Once there, she hooks up with the local Sembagare (John Omirah Miluwi), who becomes her tracker, translator, and long-term assistant. When political upheaval in the Congo leads to her expulsion from the country, she does not give up, instead moving her base camp to Rwanda. From there, she makes contact with the gorillas and develops a close enough rapport that she is able to learn things no other researcher has yet discovered. A photojournalist, Bob Campbell (Bryan Brown), joins her for a period and makes a pictorial journal of her study. The two enjoy a brief affair but split when Fossey is forced to choose between Campbell and her gorillas. After his departure, Fossey becomes fiercely protective of the giant apes, doing everything in her power to curtail poaching and, in the process, alienating potential allies and making enemies. Although her death, which ends the film, remains an unsolved mystery, suspicion resides more on the politicians hurt by Fossey's crusade than on the poachers who were initially suspected. (The film takes the view that Fossey ruffled the feathers of a powerful man.)

The most remarkable elements of Gorillas in the Mist are the technical ones. The photography is spectacular, and Apted does something subtle and effective with it. In the beginning, he relies on wide shots to emphasize the strange, almost otherworldliness of the terrain. There's a memorable early scene in which Fossey and Sembagare are shown dwarfed by a sea of green flora. It's beautiful and awe-inspiring. As the story progresses, Apted increasingly relies on closer, more intimate and less intimidating shots. Once Fossey has become comfortable with her surroundings, the movie reflects this. It's the same way with the gorillas. Initially represented as alien creatures, they gradually become recognizable characters.

The wizardry of Rick Baker must also be acknowledged. Baker is no stranger to creating screen primates - he was literally the man behind the mask in the 1976 version of King Kong. Here, his job is more subtle - allow the seamless blending of real animals with men in gorilla suits. His work is unimpeachable. There are few sequences in which it's evident whether the camera is capturing a real creature or one of Baker's creations. The importance of this contribution cannot be overstated. Had any of the man-made gorillas stood out as obviously being fake, the film's critical sense of verisimilitude would have collapsed.

For her performance, Sigourney Weaver was granted and Oscar nomination (although she did not win). The citation was not a surprise - this is the sort of offbeat portrayal that often provides high-profile actors with Academy recognition. Weaver's acting is a study in contrast. Physically, she's brilliant. Her facial expressions, gestures, and body language craft a complex and driven character. But her speaking of the dialogue is stilted and mannered, with odd inflections and a sometimes unconvincing delivery. For the actress, this is not unique to Gorillas in the Mist. The same argument could be made for Aliens, where Weaver's best scenes are often those in which she is not required to speak.

Although there's nothing wrong with Bryan Brown's performance as Campbell, there's a great deal wrong with the character's presence. For about 45 minutes, it turns Gorillas in the Mist into a soap opera and causes the production to lose its otherwise precise focus. When Campbell bows out - something that occurs in a predictable and unconvincing manner - we breathe a sigh of relief because there's a sense that, with the obligatory romance now in the rearview mirror, the movie can return to the aspects of the story that are the most interesting. This assessment is correct. That's not to say everything with Campbell is a waste. The scenes depicting his interaction with the gorillas are charming and effective.

Although Gorillas in the Mist may not have succeeded in fully capturing the complex essence of the real Dian Fossey and what she stood for, it comes close enough that nearly everyone experiencing the cinematic version will come away not only with a better appreciation of her life and work but of how man's encroachment upon the natural habitat of the gorillas puts them at risk. It wasn't long after Fossey's death that Rwanda was plunged into a brutal civil war, so in many ways this remains a documentary of a place and time that no longer exist. (Much of the filming was done on location.) It's a side-note, but one I'm sure the documentarian in Apted appreciates.

Gorillas in the Mist (United States, 1988)

Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 1988-09-23
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1