Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
Congo is an adventure sci-fi thriller film released in 1995 and is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton. Directed by Frank Marshall, the film follows an expedition to a remote part of central Africa to discover what happened to a previous expedition with a variety of characters displaying differing motives. The film stars Laura Linney, Dylan Walsh, Ernie Hudson, Grant Heslov, Jon Don Baker and Tim Curry. The project had been in development hell since Crichton first pitched the idea to 20th Century Fox in 1979 before the novel was published. However, it wasn't until the success of another Crichton adaptation - Jurassic Park - that the project moved forward, using the same team of makeup artists and puppeteers to portray the gorilla characters. The film was released to a mostly negative response from critics as well as seven nominations for the notorious Razzie Awards. However, the film was a surprise hit with audiences with global takings of around $152 million.
What's it about?
A scientific expedition in the jungles of the Congo is there to acquire diamonds for use in a communications laser on behalf of their employer, TraviCom. After Charlie and Jeffrey find what they are looking for, they accidentally stumble across an ancient lost city and hurriedly report back to their mission coordinator Karen Ross back in Houston. Karen, however, loses contact with the team and via a remote camera, discovers the camp destroyed and everyone on site apparently dead. Determined not to lose his precious diamonds, TraviCom CEO and Charlie's father R.B. Travis orders Karen out to the Congo to discover what happened and retrieve the diamonds although Karen is more concerned for Charlie, her former fiancé.
Teaming up with primatologist Peter Elliott, who has taught a captive ape named Amy to communicate via sign language and a speaking machine, they journey out to the Congo with Romanian philanthropist Herkemer Homolka who is helping to fund the trip in order to help Amy return to the wild. After running into trouble on the ground in nearby Zaire, they are led by veteran African explorer Captain Monroe Kelly to escape a developing civil war as they head into the jungle, unaware of exactly how much danger they are about to find themselves in.
What's to like?
The joys of Congo are pretty meagre, I'm afraid to say. I can see what they were aiming for - the sort of King Solomon's Mines romp which sees the cast ramble through dense woodland and handle dangers in the style of Indiana Jones. Unfortunately, the opening scenes give the game away when B-movie icon Bruce Campbell pops up in an ill-fated cameo. Of the main cast, only Ernie Hudson stands out in a good way as he subverts the 'great white hunter' stereotype with a commendable English accent and a charismatic flair. For fans of his, Tim Curry's eccentric shady sidekick is every bit as clunky as you'd hope for but he at least displays more personality than anyone else in the film.
If anything, the gorilla Amy is the star of the show. Operated by both actors in suits and puppeteers off screen, the illusion is passable but nothing like as impressive as the dinosaurs were in Jurassic Park. This may seem unfair to judge the two films on the face of it but both were the work of special effects wizard Stan Winston and his team. The film walks a fine line between goofy parody and serious adventure and viewers who can derive pleasure from this sort of nonsense will get their money's worth here. Curry, over-acting as always and utilising an accent that can only be called 'indeterminate foreigner', can't help bring a smile to your face whenever he's on screen but that's sort of the problem - this is a film you laugh at instead of with, assuming they were playing it for laughs. And to be honest, I'm still not sure.
- The role of Monroe Kelly (inspired by the character Allan Quatermain) was originally written for Sean Connery, who Crichton had just finished working with on The First Great Train Robbery. However the story hadn't been written when Crichton pitched the idea as a film so as development on the film stalled, Connery was no longer available. Coincidentally, Connery would actually play Quatermain as his last ever film role in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
- Although it doesn't appear in the film, rumours persist of a scene where a gorilla wields a laser gun and a number of viewers have reported seeing the scene in question. This has not yet been debunked by the filmmakers.
- The diamonds that feature in the film are actually quartz crystals from the Herkimer Diamond mines in Middleville, New York. Tim Curry's character was named Herkermer in tribute to this. However, the diamond flung from the hot-air balloon was never found or returned to the mine.
What's not to like?
Let's assume that the filmmakers weren't trying to make a hilarious parody of adventure movies and they were playing the material dead straight. If so, the film's narrative is bordering on crazy while the film's casting is among the least inspired I've ever seen - Linney looks bewildered much of the time and Walsh reminds us why his film career didn't last much longer beyond this. Honestly, I thought his role was been played by Sean Astin (who is a much better actor) until I saw the credits. Curry is as ridiculously hammy as you'd expect but he's given a run for his money by Baker, a CEO with such an explosive temperament that I imagine him blowing his top when he discovers a hole in his socks. As for the speaking gorilla Amy, she fails to convince as either a kind-hearted hairy child or as an aggressive defender of her human companions. You know something has gone wrong somewhere when she's given a martini to drink (in a glass, naturally) on a flight in order to calm her down.
As a serious thriller, the film is saddled with so much goofy nonsense that you begin to suspect it was done deliberately. So if they were aiming to make the film a parody, why not go all the way and make it amusing in a good way? The dialogue is dull and uninspired, the few attempts at comedy fall flat and none of the cast, besides Curry, are memorable in any way. It just feels as though there is a surprising lack of thought behind the whole project, as though Crichton merely wanted to revive the adventure movie without actually thinking about making it plausible. It feels made up of scenes and sequences from films we've seen dozens of times before although if anyone else has filmed a battle between gorillas and laser-wielding scientists, I'll eat my pith helmet.
Should I watch it?
Congo is the sort of film that would appeal to fans of those cheesy adventure movies from the Fifties that sees a gaggle of stars picked off one by one by whatever monster is stalking them. Uninspired, poorly made, badly performed and tragically underwritten, the film is a sad comedown for anyone expecting the sort of magic seen in other adaptations of Crichton's work. Perhaps the only thing that saves the film is the suspicion that halfway through, they gave up on the project and just decided to have some goofy fun, turning the picture into a self-parody. For a turkey, at least it's self aware...
Great For: fans of bad films, home commentaries, Tim Curry fans
Not So Great For: primatologists, apes of any kind, Homo Sapiens of any kind
What else should I watch?
As harsh as it may sound, I'd happily throw Congo into the same camp as other monster movies of the Nineties like Anaconda and The Island Of Dr. Moreau. The former is another jungle expedition, this time pitching Jennifer Lopez against a deranged Jon Voight and a CG snake of lengthy proportions while the latter is a frankly bizarre and cursed adaptation of HG Well's novel that pitched Marlon Brando against Val Kilmer, the script against common sense and the budget against the back of a urinal. If you're looking for a monster movie that actually pokes fun at the genre then might I suggest Snakes On A Plane with the ever-watchable Samuel L Jackson in fine form or perhaps Frank Marshall's directorial debut Arachnophobia.
While I recognise the style of movie Congo intended to pay homage to, there are plenty of big-hitters that do it much better. The original Raiders Of The Lost Ark introduced a cinematic hero for the ages in the whip-cracking shape of Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones who would go on to appear in four further films (with a fifth apparently on the way) and who became synonymous with adventure and treasure hunting. And while he's more of a pirate than an adventurer, Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow has since become one of modern cinema's most cherished rogues in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise. The first film The Curse Of The Black Pearl is an amazing adventure film that entertains and enthrals all members of the family and the same can be said for one of Steven Spielberg's ideas, The Goonies. After all, the Bearded One has form when it comes to adventure films.
Dr Karen Ross
Dr Peter Elliott
Capt. Monroe Kelly
Joe Don Baker
John Patrick Shanley*
Release Date (UK)
30th June, 1995
Adventure, Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Film, Worst Supporting Actor (Curry), Worst Supporting Actress (Amy the gorilla), Worst Director, Worst New Star (Amy the gorilla), Worst Original Song
© 2021 Benjamin Cox
Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on March 10, 2021:
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on February 27, 2021:
Thanks - very well-written article!