The problem with Congo is simply that it’s not entirely certain whether it wants to be taken seriously (even a little bit) or simply wants to veer off into a camp B-movie-style “killer apes” flick. Unfortunately, it never rally picks a definitive approach, and fluctuates between the two – making it difficult to take seriously during its action scenes and yet hard to accept the camp humour when it’s offered. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s a hevily-flawed one. I can’t help but get the impression that the movie might have been better accepted had it gone for a more fitting title like “Attack of the Killer Apes of King Solomon’s Mines!”
The movie is an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s book, which is – as I recall – actually not a bad read. Not a great one, but not terrible. The problem is that this movie was released hot on the heels of Jurassic Park and it seems like the study grapped the closest Crichton adventure book to adapt for the big screen, looking for an action/adventure yarn that might seem half as exciting as the gigantic dinosaur picture.
When you consider that the movie seems to have been designed to be taken seriously, you should keep in mind that it features:
- Tim Curry with an Eastern European accent as a would-be diamond thief;
- a talking gorilla;
- Joe Pantoliano’s magic technicoloured dream shirt;
- Bruce Campbell as a scientist (killed in the first few minutes);
- a love triangle between a woman who just lost her fiance, an ape doctor and his ape;
- the line “I’m your great white hunter for this trip, though I happen to be black”;
- people in monkey suits;
- Grant Heslov, possibly the most blandly annoying comedic supporting actor of the past three decades – which is saying something;
- lasers! lots and lots of lasers!
I could go on.
The movie’s main problem is that it doesn’t know whether to go all out as an exploitation seventies-style creature feature (“the myth of the killer ape,” indeed) or if it wants to be taken seriously. Scenes between Amy the ape and Dr. Peter Elliot seem like the were intended to be taken seriously and to be heartfelt (even though they’re terrible), while it’s nearly impossible to believe that anyone in their right mind would have stuck the scene where the entire African troupe break spontaneously into “California Dreamin'” without expecting us to laugh at the hokeyness.
Similarly, the cast seem torn between whether to take it seriously or turn the camp up to eleven. Dylan Walsh and Laura Linney seem to be trying their best to give decent performances, while Tim Curry and Ernie Hudson are locked in an immortal battle to upstage one another. To be fair, Hudson plays his role quite well, taking large chunks out of the scenery with his grand elocution, while smoking a long cigarette and carrying a big gun. Whereas Curry simply does “generic Russian-esque accent #218”. Still, I smiled a bit during Bruce Campbell’s small cameo, which arguably hints at the best the movie could have been – in my head, he’d be the lead character, cracking horrible jokes about the volcano doing “the shimey”.
However, the movie’s problems are more fundamental than a crisis of identity. The most obvious is the clichéd and boring script. there isn’t one African cliché that they don’t encounter, from civil strife to corrupt generals to hippos to primative tribes people in a mystical ceremony. However, the plot takes entirely too long to get where it’s going. The movie is an hour and a bit of them getting to where they want to be, and ten minutes of monsters attacking, which is entirely the wrong approach, whether you wanna play this camp or serious. The crew isn’t making Hotel Rwanda – I don’t want a half-assed geo-political exploration of the area, you promised me killer apes, dammit!
It’s just boring. And then there’s the apes themselves. Obviously the technology didn’t exist to render them with CGI, and it was unfeasible to use real monkeys, but still. The suits are impressive, but it’s too much to simply expect the viewer to suspend their disbelief. That’s not a commentary on the performers in the suits – their movements are quite fluid and graceful – but rather an observation about the film’s variation between being heavily stylised and using real jungle settings. You can spot, for instance, when the film uses a set (for example, their encounters with natives) as opposed to a real jungle – and it perhaps reflects the movie’s internal conflicts.
Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that there is a certain charm to preceedings, but only really in the same way that certain B-movies can be charming to watch. It’s only if you’re going to laugh and smile along with it, and enjoy the campness and ridiculousness. Those looking for a more fulfilling film (or even a “good” film) would do well to look elsewhere, but it’s a movie you can find enjoyment in watching, if you approach it the right way. Just about.
It’s a bad film, but one not without its own giddy little charms, though they are few and far between. If it could have decided whether it wanted to be a serious attempt at a revival of the adventure genre or a camp tribute, it might have fared better – instead of being half of one and half of the other.