Congo

Congo. Paramount Pictures 1995.

Before watching the movie:

So much as I thought I knew what this was about, it seems I completely misunderstood this movie. I had the idea this was some kind of action drama about conservation, like fighting poachers or something. Maybe a military operation in the jungle.

What this actually seems to have something to do with is a new species of killer gorilla and also a signing gorilla, and the preview I saw looked a lot funnier than I expected. So I’m completely at a loss for what to expect now, besides Tim Curry and Ernie Hudson being in it.

After watching the movie:

An expedition from communications empire TraviCom into the Congo looking for rare blue diamonds that could focus a new, more powerful laser that could be used for communications finds a lost city, but are suddenly attacked by what appear to be violent, pale gorillas. The team leader, Charles Travis, is the son of the CEO and the ex-fiance of Karen Ross, a high-level R&D figure in the company, formerly of the CIA. Mr. Travis sends Karen on a recon and recovery mission too urgent to waste time putting together their own new expedition, especially with Zaire too unstable to keep the border open. Peter Elliott is the lead primatologist in a special experiment at UC Berkeley that not only teaches a gorilla named Amy to communicate with sign language, but equips her with a glove and backpack-mounted computer that translates her signs into speech. However, Amy has started having nightmares again that previously stopped when she started filling her room with paintings of the jungle (as well as a disturbing yellow eye), leading Peter to believe she needs to return home. Despite Peter’s plan to use the trip to study whether Amy could translate for the other gorillas, nobody is interested in funding his research except the Romanian “philanthropist” Herkemer Homolka, who seems to have his own interests in what Amy knows about that eye. Karen crashes their expedition and as Homolka’s cash hasn’t stretched as far as promised, Peter reluctantly allows Karen to join them. Once arriving in Africa, two things are immediately apparent: it’s Karen’s mission, Peter and Amy are just along for the ride, and the region is politically and naturally dangerous, and none of them will get very far without their guide Monroe Kelly and his team.

Through the movie I was surprised by how much it felt like a high-tech adventure that seemed close to something familiar. When I saw that it was based on a book by Michael Crichton, I understood why. While it lacks the charm, this movie does seem to be trying to recapture the success of Jurassic Park. Perhaps it’s just a different chemistry or perhaps it’s the lack of Spielberg (although it is produced by a pair of his colleagues I didn’t realize had worked without him so early), but if that was the goal, it misses the mark. The music and cinematography doesn’t have the same memorable magic, nor are the characters as perfectly mixed, but there are some gems.

Tim Curry’s Homolka is less sinister than he initially seems and more of an obsessed buffoon. As much fun as he’s been in other movies, Ernie Hudson is on an entirely different level here as the eternally composed “Great White Hunter who happens to be black”. The man cannot cease to exude confidence even when admitting he panicked and failed to follow his own advice. The leads are less exciting, but perfectly serviceable.

Amy seems less important to the plot than for her screen time. Maybe there was an attempt being made to provide a cute animal appeal, but after she’s served her purpose as an excuse to get the whole party into Africa, she’s mainly a comic relief double act with Peter until the climax. The sign language was also a disappointment on a potentially interesting concept. I don’t know much ASL, but except for some key scenes, her “signing” seems to just be the same motion over and over again, magically turned into what it’s supposed to be by the translating backpack. Since as far as I can tell Amy is played by actors in a suit created by Stan Winston pretty much the entire movie, they could have certainly put more work into that. The magic backpack was a bit beyond bleeding edge tech at the time. I think there has been some success with real world implementations of the idea now, but machine translation of sign is still far from mainstream, and I don’t think it would ever be as idiomatic due to the nature of how signed phrases are composed.

This movie is a lot of fun, particularly thanks to the supporting characters, but it feels like it’s trying to live up to something timeless and doesn’t get there. Like the Jurassic Park sequels, but without any dinosaurs. Definitely worth the watch, but not necessarily something to cherish fondly for a lifetime. Just a wild ride with a dash of sci-fi and actors serving plenty of ham.

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