Revisiting Congo: the barmiest blockbuster of the 1990s

The film of Michael Crichton's Congo aimed to capitalise on the success of Jurassic Park. It did, leaving something quite surreal behind...

“That gorilla has seen the city of Zinj. And she will take us there”

It was understandable, in the wake of the massive success of Jurassic Park, that movie studios would be falling over themselves to see what Michael Crichton books they either had an option on, or could get the rights to. In time, Warner Bros would go on to make Sphere and Disclosure (a film we looked at here) to varying degrees of success. Fox would adapt Rising Sun. But also out of the traps was Paramount Pictures, which greenlit an adaptation of Crichton’s novel, Congo.

It would be fair to say that Congo was made at a point where CG hadn’t yet taken hold, in spite of the rampaging dinosaurs of Jurassic Park debuting on screen two years earlier. In fact, the mid- to late-90s was arguably the turning point, as CG moved higher and higher up the priority ladder. When Frank Marshall came to make Congo though, this was still at a time when you’d hire Stan Winston to do the gorillas, and where practical effects were still winning in the cinematic arm wrestling match with computers.

Time has not been kind to Congo, though. At the time of writing, its IMDB score stands at 4.9 out of 10. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 22%. Even reviews at the time sneered at the film. And, in truth, there’s an awful lot wrong with Congo. But, with my flameproof jacket on, I’ve always had a soft spot for it. And, on rewatching the film in preparation for this piece, I still have that very same spot. Because I can’t think of too many other big blockbusters in the 1990s that were as outright barmy as this one. Thus, while the whole thing looks more than a little dated, its core of sheer fun is very much in tact.

Ad – content continues below

In The Beginning

As it happened, Congo‘s journey to the screen actually started in the 1970s. Michael Crichton had pitched the project as a film before he penned the novel (and most Crichton fans don’t rate it as one of his best books), and 20th Century Fox would get the rights back in 1979. The book’s publication would follow in 1980. Notwithstanding the small matter of Planet Of The Apes, technology was not deemed right to make the film at that point, and it was only during work on Jurassic Park, when Stan Winston’s dinosaurs on that film were seen, that the idea was fully resurrected.

There was still some work to go though, not least the requirement for a screenplay. The film’s script is co-credited to John Patrick Shanley, best known for writing and directing the excellent Doubt (he also helmed Joe Vs The Volcano). Oh, and for his Oscar and Pullitzer Prize. Forgot those.

With Crichton’s story an affectionate nod to King Solomon’s Mines, Shanley was recruited by director Frank Marshall, for whom he’d penned the script to the successful Alive.

In an illuminating interview with The AV Club, Shanley shed some light on what happened. He recalled that Marshall and producer Kathleen Kennedy got in touch and asked him to read the book. “I called them and said, ‘I read it.’ They said, ‘Well, what’d ya think?’ And I said, ‘I like the title.’ This is dead accurate. This is exactly what I said, ‘I like the title.’ Then I paused and I said, ‘I like that it starts in San Francisco and they go to the Congo. I like that”. Which presumably would have been enough to kill his involvement stone dead.

Er, or maybe not. “And they said, ‘Great! We’ll make the deal.’ And I was like, ‘Holy mackerel, they wanted this to happen.’ So I said, ‘Okay,’ because I felt a great loyalty to them. I said ‘I’ll do it, but the great white hunter has to be black. I can’t do this thing where this white guy is telling all these black people what to do, I just can’t bring myself to do it.’ [Laughs.] And they said, ‘Fine, the great white hunter will be black”.

Ernie Hudson would subsequently land the role of said hunter, putting in a performance that’s a stirring mix of a man simultaneously dazed, bemused, and with the look of someone who took a wrong turn when the interesting blockbusters were handed out. To combat this, he would play the said hunter as a middle class, Confuscious-esque dispenser of sage advice. No matter what anyone throws at him throughout the film, he remains unphased. Some may say uninterested, but I’m definitely going with unphased.

Ad – content continues below

The screenplay would best be described as loosely inspired by the book, but for all its inherent daftness, it wasn’t the script that set the alarm bells off. Instead, the script was the proverbial tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Which leads us to talk about animals. There are differing reports as to what the intended approach for the realisation of the gorillas in the film was. It seems that some work was done to see if CG could work, as it had for Spielberg’s dinosaurs, but that plan was seemingly scuppered by the limitations on how CG could handle hair at that time. Just look at the fake looking monkeys of Jumanji which came out later the same year for evidence of that. Congo, then, would proceed with actors in gorilla suits. This was not a choice, as it would turn out, that would help add plausibility to the final product. The era of Andy Serkis was clearly still some time away.

Onto The Film…

Congo kicks off with the necessary plot points. Within minutes, it looks promising too. We’ve got Bruce Campbell for a start, a strange expedition that goes wrong, and Laura Linney sat in the lowest-tech secret control room that a state-of-the-art communications company has ever used. This screenshot is the most feature-packed we could make it look.

Said company is run by Joe Don Baker’s Travis, a man who – he boasts – has 40,000 people working for him. In fact, he has so many people working for him, that Frank Marshall needs to go to a wide shot just to get the crowds of employees at his posh office in one frame.

Ad – content continues below

Er, moving on.

Through circumstances then, the expedition-to-get-a-diamond-that’ll-make-a-laser-good-and-improve-the world’s-communications-for-all-time-and-stuff-like that goes wrong. Bruce Campbell is feared dead! Travis, surprisingly easily, convinces Laura Linney to go and look for him. The thing is, she’ll need to find another expedition heading to that area to piggyback. If only there was a future star of Nip/Tuck (Hugh Grant being amongst those who turned the role down before Dylan Walsh was hired) looking to take a now-talking gorilla home.

Hang on…

This seems like a good moment to talk about two things that Congo gets fundamentally wrong, at least if it had any intention of being a deathly serious adventure movie. Paradoxically, they are also the two things that make Congo such a joy to watch. They are Tim Curry and Amy The Gorilla. Let’s do them in order.

Tim Curry has a pivotal role in Congo. He’s cast as Herkermer Homolka, a man who it turns out has lots of accents, save for the one he’s supposed to use. Homolka is the sinister, mysterious one of the expedition into Zaire. He’s the one whose motives are apparently unclear, who has a history of leaving people high and dry, the apparently rich man who can’t afford to pay for the plane fuel needed to get the team to their destination (a device that ultimately allows Linney’s character to get on the plane).

Ad – content continues below

In the hands of someone capable of taking the character to a darker place – James Woods, Alan Rickman, John Malkovich, anyone but Tim Curry – Homolka could have been a real threat, and added a sense of real mystery.

Instead, this happened…

And this…

And this…

Ad – content continues below

After that last moment, Delroy Lindo’s character turns around and says – this got through script edits – “stop eating my sesame cake”. This is in the middle of a scene where they’re basically bribing him to get across the border of Zaire. Homolka doesn’t heed the advice though, causing Lindo’s character to scream the line at him again. Don’t believe us?

Congo is, to my knowledge, the only film on the planet to twice contain the line “stop eating my sesame cake”. Homolka, second time around, cedes to the request.

Yet as easy as it is to take potshots at Curry’s character in the film, every time I watch Congo, I can’t wait for him to get back on the screen. It’s as if he read the script, realised what the rest of us would discover, and just rammed his tongue even further into his cheek than usual. I can but conclude that there’s no way Tim Curry wasn’t in on the joke here. His masterful delivery of the crucial line “It is the city of Zinj” almost deserves a round of applause.

To be clear: I’m not being ironic here. I genuinely love Tim Curry’s performance in Congo. A lot.

The second tonal problem for a film that mixes gore, eyeballs, a 15 certificate and an attempt to tap into the spirit of an Indiana Jones movie, is Amy the Gorilla. As it happens, it’s not the fact that Amy is – despite the very best efforts of the late, great Stan Winston – very obviously someone in a gorilla suit. The aforementioned Planet Of The Apes put across a dark and sinister tone with such restrictions. No, from the minute that Dylan Walsh’s character straps Amy into a machine that allows her to talk, transforming a man in the crowd from one making this face….

…. to this one ….

Ad – content continues below

… the film as a serious entity is doomed. Truthfully, you could give Amy any dialogue whatsoever, and you’d be guffawing in seconds. Given lines to spout like “Ugly gorillas. Ugly. Go away” in a robotic voice that sounds like it’s been switched to Bee Gee-mode, it would be fair to say that the tone is somewhat broken. Heck, after meeting Amy properly (you get to see her pivotal artwork early in the film) you’ve almost come up with a full, three-act drinking game by the time the end credits have rolled for the first time.

But then surely, surely the framing of Amy as more of a comedy character is a deliberate choice. After all, to be taken seriously as a gorilla, she needs to follow that Planet Of The Apes template. To be an unpredictable force of sorts. Amy’s certainly unpredictable to be fair. I’ve never seen a gorilla in a movie drink a Martini for a start…

… or have a smoke…

… or stare lustfully at a frog perched on a box of bananas…

Ad – content continues below

Disbelief suspension though is crucial to the film. At one stage, the expedition team are in a plane being shot at by missiles. Then, by heat seeking missiles. To combat these, Linney’s character opens the plane’s doors, which doesn’t create an effect that sucks half of the contents of said vehicle straight out the door, and fires distress flares. These flares are enough to fool the heat seekers. I immediately rewound the scene and watched it again to check that this happened. It did.

No matter though: the plane goes down shortly afterwards forcing everyone to bail out, making Congo the first film to my knowledge that has a gorilla apparently doing a parachute jump.

So, given all that I’ve said so far, why doesn’t Congo fall apart? Again, there are a few reasons. Firstly, full credit to Laura Linney. She holds any semblance of plausibility together through her work, giving a trademark excellent performance in the midst of a company of actors who are, er, sometimes doing other things.

Secondly, Frank Marshall stages one or two really good sequences here. The best is the attack on the camp later on in the film, where – with a nod to Aliens – remote sentry machine guns are deployed and a massive laser perimeter fence, that looks like it’d need half the national grid to power, comes under attack. It’s a theme lifted from Jurassic Park certainly, where the raptors test the fence. In this case, it’s gorillas being cut apart by lasers. Quite graphically, as it happens.

Finally, Marshall’s not a daft man. And whilst it’s unclear if he’s in on the joke to the same degree as Tim Curry, he works hard to inject a sense of fun in Congo throughout. It’s clearly going for the aforementioned tone of an Indiana Jones film, and it see-saws between the brutality of Temple Of Doom and the fun of The Last Crusade, without coming close to either. But it’s still, I’d argue, a rollicking piece of entertainment, made at just the perfect time. Any later, it would have been a computerised blah-fest. Here, it’s quite wondefully barmy.

Ad – content continues below

Fittingly, it all goes a bit nuts at the end, as Tim Curry and the rest of his team finally find Zinj (the best name for a lost city ever in the movies. And Tim Curry knows it), and promptly ends up bringing it to its knees. Gorillas go mad (in a bizarre stop motion slow-mo action sequence), Amy sort of becomes a reverse-Mowgli from The Jungle Book and goes back to her people (albeit without her high-tech Speak & Spell), whilst a volcano that Travis had casually mentioned earlier in the film erupts.

Incidentally, Congo is, to my knowledge, the only film where lots of gorillas re-enact the videogame Lemmings by jumping into a torrent of lava. Presumably, it’s supposed to look like they fell in. It ends up looking like human beings in furry suits going off the diving board.

Congo is also the only film I know of that has a scene where that bloke from Nip/Tuck burns a leech off his dick with Ernie Hudson’s cigar.

And the only one where Laura Linney shoots off a gorilla’s hand with an improvised laser gun.

Ad – content continues below

That looks like it hurt.

Congo would overcome the generally negative reviews to become something of a hit, in part down to the sturdy manner in which Paramount marketed the film. It grossed $152m on its worldwide cinema release, and did decent business on video too. Considering it cost $50m to make, that’s not a bad return.

Sadly, it’s a film that’s more sneered at than enjoyed now, and that’s a pity. Appreciating I’ve spent 2000 words poking holes in it, it’s done more from a position of love than ridicule. Heck, I’d love to see a Blu-ray release, with proper features that get everyone concerned to look back. I can’t imagine that’d happen, but a man can dream. Who knows: someone at Criterion might just be reading these words, and it might just tip them over the edge. Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score got a special edition release in the end after all.

If Criterion remains unconvinced, still seek Congo out, and appreciate it in the spirit it seems to be intended: a fun blockbuster, that has the odd venture to seriousland, but decides it doesn’t like it there and heads off in the other direction. I can think of a hundred blockbusters that could be improved by deploying such an ethos. Congo, for one, very much feels the benefit of it…

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Ad – content continues below