Congo

1995, Movie, PG-13, 109 mins

Review

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Novelist Michael Crichton seems to have parlayed the colossal success of JURASSIC PARK into a screen-rights-binge on his earlier, unfilmed books. One result: CONGO, a second-rate jungle adventure that delivers far less than it promises.

Via video satellite link from a volcano in deepest, darkest Africa, Charles Travis (Bruce Campbell) demonstrates a test of a new super-laser powered by a mammoth diamond while his father, tycoon R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker) and former fiancee, Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney), watch. Suddenly, the encampment is attacked by wild gorillas, and though it appears that everyone has been killed, Charles's body is nowhere to be seen. Karen wants to find him, while Travis is more concerned with recovering the laser weapon.

Meanwhile primate specialist Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh) is coping with his own problems. Amy--a gorilla he has taught to use sign language and fitted with a device that converts her hand movements into digitized speech--is pining for Africa. Elliot wants to take her back, and hopes she'll teach other apes to sign, allowing researchers to learn more about their lives in the wild. Mysterious, self-proclaimed Romanian philanthropist Herkermer Homolka (Tim Curry) offers to pay for the expedition, on the condition that he can come along. Ross buys her way in at the last minute, using the scientific expedition as cover for her own, less high-minded agenda.

Ross and Elliot spar, then grow to respect and like one another. Once in Africa, they team up with Monroe Kelly (Ernie Hudson), a Great White Hunter who just happens to be Black. Kelly bribes their way through the Zaire border, but their plane is attacked by Zairean rebels and they're forced to bail out some distance from their destination.

Ross makes contact with her employers and learns that the volcano is going to erupt soon. But Amy playfully wrecks the receiver and the rains wash out the rest of the nifty high-tech gear, so they're on their own as they proceed deeper into the jungle. They finally locate the destroyed campsite of the first expedition. Homolka admits he's looking for the lost city of Zinj, home to King Solomon's fabled mines, they do indeed find Zinj. The group is attacked by savage white gorillas of exceptional intelligence and strength that were bred to guard the mines. Greedy Homolka is torn to pieces, and Ross and Elliot find Charles' corpse--and the experimental laser--atop a massive pile of human bones. Amy tries to rescue her human friends by talking to the mutant apes, but the laser weapon proves far more helpful. A simultaneous earthquake and volcanic eruption seal off the egress to Zinj. Elliot and Ross release Amy, and Ross destroys the laser gun.

Congo, written in 1980, is not one of Crichton's better novels. CONGO, adapted by John Patrick Shanley and directed by Stephen Spielberg protege Frank Marshall, is not one of the better silly action pictures set in gratuitously fake jungles and featuring nefarious foreigners, threatening natives, and talking gorillas. Marshall clearly does not share Crichton's obsession with technology: His attitude is summed up by Ross's reply to a question about her handheld satellite tracking device--"Well, ya know, it's a gadget; it has features"--and evident in the often laughable quality of the film's many special effects. Marshall appears to have envisioned CONGO as a sort of '90s version of a 1940s jungle movie (Paramount is rumored to have bought the book with an eye to developing it as an INDIANA JONES movie), but its nostalgic charms were lost on an audience brought up on the high-tech likes of, well, JURASSIC PARK. (Profanity, graphic violence.) leave a comment

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