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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Released almost two years to the date after Steven Spielberg’s massive hit Jurassic Park, 1995’s Congo was another science fiction Michael Crichton adaptation expected to conquer the box office and do for Paramount what Park had done for Universal. Directed by frequent Spielberg collaborator Frank Marshall (Arachnaphobia) and produced by his wife Kathleen Kennedy, Congo was met with harsh reviews from critics, who compared it unfavorably to Jurassic Park, and disinterest from audiences. Though it tripled its budget in international grosses, it became almost universally a symbol of the failed summer blockbuster and was considered a massive creative disappointment, especially when compared to the culturally huge Jurassic Park.
After a failed expedition into the jungle rain forests of the African Congo results in seven dead men, TraviCom CEO Joe Don Baker (I refuse to look up the character’s name… he is Joe Don Baker) sends Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney) after an expedition group led by Dr. Peter Elliott (Dylan Walsh) who are headed into the jungle under the guise of releasing an ape back into the wild. In actuality, they are after diamond crystals, which can be used in order to get a leg up in the communications industry somehow. It’s a whole lot of techno babble that really makes no sense. They meet up with Captain Munro Kelly (an excellent Ernie Hudson) and Herkemer Homolka (a scenery-chewing Tim Curry) and form a party to search for the lost city of Zinj, where apparently the diamond crystals are located perhaps.
The biggest “star,” however, of the movie is Amy, the talking gorilla. Unconvincingly portrayed by several actors in a crappy costume and an annoying voice over artist, Amy is one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen in a movie. Looking less like a gorilla and more like a twisted monstrosity with a nightmare-inducing non-articulated face, Amy is awkward, unconvincing, and an overall bad special effect, particularly for a big budget film considered the follow up to Jurassic Park, one of the biggest special effects extravaganzas of its time. If the writing were better perhaps the gorilla might be less distracting, but Amy’s lines are clunky, unfunny, and embarrassing. At no point did I ever believe Amy to be an actual gorilla, unlike something found in the recent Planet of the Apes movies (and yes I know technological advancements have obviously made this easier).
I remember when Congo was released into theaters. It was one of the hottest summers on record, and the film had a tie-in deal with Taco Bell. I remember the giant plastic Congo cups sold at Taco Bell, and how similar they were to the color change Jurassic Park cups sold at McDonald’s two years previous. We had a few of them, and I remember carrying one with me filled with ice water while I delivered newspapers throughout my neighborhood. Funny that my most distinct memory about Congo is its product placement tie-ins. I also remember the terrible toy line for Congo, and how the film was obviously expected to be a huge hit but turned out to be a flop, sending the merchandise to the clearance bins pretty quickly.
I also remember how the film was highly anticipated, heavily hyped, and expected to be one of the biggest films of 1995. That did not turn out so well, as only 22% of critics gave it a positive notice, according to Rotten Tomatoes. The film, to its credit, features some interesting and entertaining aspects, however. As noted earlier, Ernie Hudson is great as Captain Kelly, the group’s guide into Africa. The film is actually decently shot and edited, and is appropriately tense and entertaining when it needs to be (the plane chase sequence, for example, is well done). Clearly director Frank Marshall had some idea of what he was working with. Additionally, though the script isn’t great, the film has an adventurous spirit that is sorely lacking from a lot of modern movies.
Unfortunately, the movie is chock-a-block with shit. Dylan Walsh and Grant Hezlov make for uninteresting and bland lead male characters (it doesn’t help that they each have the worst possible haircuts I’ve ever seen for leading men in a film). Walsh is totally unconvincing in his role, and his line readings are downright amateur in places. He is neither dynamic nor charismatic. Laura Linney is a talented actress, but she is not an action star and is clearly miscast here. She’s neither Sigourney Weaver nor Jamie Lee Curtis, and it shows. The script is also atrocious, and the film in places looks like a made-for-tv movie (the parts with the “authentic” African tribes are downright offensively bad).
It is the ape costumes, however, that make for the most embarrassing and crappiest parts of the movie. In addition to Amy’s unconvincing costume, there are the dreaded grey “killer apes” that act in this film like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park do. However, for as good as the dinos look in that movie, that’s how bad these apes look in Congo. They are meant to be scary and intimidating, but come off looking like a total joke. Marshall does his best with the material and I believe he is a capable and competent filmmaker, but what he’s working with is almost total crap. The fact that he had to use slo-mo to the point of absurdity shows the cheapness of the costumes he is working with.
It’s not surprising that after Congo, no other Michael Crichton film adaptation was deemed a critical success, and commercial success eluded all of theatrically released works except one. Sphere proved to be another flop, The 13th Warrior is notorious for all the wrong reasons, and Timeline is completely forgotten, having tanked worse than any other Crichton adaptation. His only other box office success came in the form of Spielberg’s The Lost World, a movie that has more than its fair share of problems. In a post-Jurassic Park world where every movie studio was looking for the next Jurassic Park, Congo must have surely seemed a safe bet. But it was a botch job based off of less than fantastic source material, and its legacy is ultimately one of almost total critical failure and commercial disappointment.