The Guilty Pleasures: “Congo”
In the early 1990s, author Michael Crichton found massive success when he became the only writer in American history to have the #1 film (Jurassic Park), television series (ER) and novel (Disclosure) all at the same time. Naturally, despite his years of association with the industry, Crichton’s work became sought-after fodder for films for the rest of the decade…with mixed results in terms of quality. In addition to his own contribution to the script for Twister, the ’90s brought us no less than six further adaptations of Crichton’s novels after Jurassic Park: Rising Sun, Disclosure, The Lost World, Sphere, The 13th Warrior (from the novel Eaters of the Dead)…and my personal favorite, Congo.
Congo is a mixed bag, to be sure: A box-office success, it was nominated for six Razzie Awards, including Worst Picture. Savaged by many critics, it nonetheless received a warm three-star review from Roger Ebert. Congo has A-list talent backing a B-movie script, and if you come at it from the right mindset, it’s a heckuva lot of fun.
“Relax. You’re in better hands than you should be.”
Congo was directed by Frank Marshall, who is better known for his massive success as a producer. He has had a long association with Steven Spielberg, for whom he produced, among other titles, Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple, Hook and, importantly, the Indiana Jones films, to which Congo owes a lot. As a director, he had previously made the survival drama Alive, and, importantly, made his feature directorial debut with Arachnophobia, to which Congo also owes a lot.
It’s a blend of Indy’s high adventure and Arachnophobia‘s twisted sense of humor, with many spectacular practical effects driving a film that was coming out at the dawn of the CGI revolution. Part of Congo‘s charm is the era in which it was finally realized: If it had come out fifteen years earlier, on the heels of the novel’s publication, its practical effects would have looked too cheesy. If it came out now, its gorillas would be entirely CGI, a la Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and their slickness would suit the corny script not at all.
Marshall populated his film with a bevy of “Hey, I know that guy!” character actors, who support future three-time Oscar nominated thespian Laura Linney in her only true action role to date. (It’s almost sad that the currently-filming sequel to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will break that particular streak.) Linney’s hard-ass, no-nonsense Karen Ross makes up for her co-lead, Dylan Walsh (of future Nip/Tuck fame), who, as primatologist Peter Elliott, is the most vanilla member of the cast.
Joe Don Baker gnashes the scenery with gusto in his every moment in the film as R.B. Travis, the owner of a multimedia conglomerate who is more worried about African diamonds revolutionizing the communications industry than about the loss of life incurred in obtaining said diamonds. His vicious performance is utterly insane, and a true delight.
Then Tim Curry shows up, as the “Romanian philanthropist” Herkermer Homolka, searching for the lost city of Zinj, and his every glance and ridiculous accent will have the right audience member in stitches.
Delroy Lindo and Joe Pantoliano appear in fun, uncredited small roles. (Playing opposite Curry, Lindo gets one of the best and most ludicrous lines in the film, delivered with perfect sincerity.) Future Oscar nominee John Hawkes shows up just long enough to memorably scream and die. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje is featured in one of his earliest roles as Kahega, second in command of the troop leading the scientists on their jungle quest. And the legendary Bruce Campbell has a small role that – shockingly – is not really NOT played for laughs; odd, given both this film, and the usual nature of Campbell’s cameo roles.
Yet this movie belongs to former Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson, who justifiably has called Munro Kelly one of his favorite roles of his distinguished career. Though third-billed, Kelly, the self-described “great white hunter who just happens to be black” is the film’s true lead, and Hudson plays him with real leading-man panache.
Finally, of course, there is Amy, the talking gorilla, who drinks martinis and tells people and other primates that they are ugly. After Jurassic Park, there was a strong studio desire to make the gorillas in Congo CGI, but the technology was just not yet there to create believable hair. Enter special effects maestro Stan Winston, who put people in delightful gorilla suits that match the weird A/B schism of this movie perfectly.
Add to all this CGI used in just the right places – with volcano and lava effects that still totally hold up – a typically delightful score from the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, some gorgeous photography of lush African scenery by E.T. cinematographer Allen Daviau, and you have all the trappings of a well-polished ’90s blockbuster. It took its time getting there, though.
Congo, the novel, was published in 1980, but it had already had a tumultuous relationship with Hollywood. Michael Crichton had sold the rights to the story before even writing the book, which not only delayed the publication of the novel, but kept Congo, the movie, in various stages of production hell for years. Jurassic Park was the watershed that brought Crichton’s other works into the limelight, and led to Congo being conceived at precisely the right time.
Crichton was reportedly disappointed with how his story translated to the screen, but the film strikes just the right balance between adventure and that humor that Crichton had never really intended.
I don’t subscribe to the theory of a film being “so bad, it’s good”. Congo is a delightful blend of top-notch ’90s Hollywood production values brought to a silly B-movie script that strikes just the right balance between high adventure and poking fun at itself. (That Flickchart actually ranks it below the deadly dull Sphere among Crichton adaptations saddens me.) See it some time, in the right frame of mind, for just a fun afternoon with a blockbuster than knows better than to take itself too seriously.
You can check out all of the best movies that sprang from the pen of the late Michael Crichton here on Flickchart.