Paramount Pictures paid a lot of money to make Michael Crichton's 15-year-old novel Congo into a movie - which seems inexplicable, given the finished product. Where did it all go? And why didn't they spend some of it on a script editor or two?
The answer, of course, is in the question - it's a Michael Crichton property, and Michael Crichton could sell his grocery list to a movie studio for more money than Margaret Mitchell ever saw. And sadly, we would all go see it if he did, as long as Industrial Light and Magic handled the special effects. The folks at Paramount know this. They seem to believe, furthermore, that a movie can't go wrong with Crichton and ILM on board - or at least that it can't go too wrong.
Congo goes pretty far wrong.
The opening scene shows us a panoramic African plain, possibly leftover footage from any other movie set in Africa. Wildlife cavorts. But the jeeps show up in a matter of moments, and immediately the premise becomes clear - those crazy humans have been messing with the Natural Order again. The plot of Congo is rather too complicated for easy summary - rather too complicated, in fact, for a two-hour movie - but at its bare bones, it has Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney), an ex-CIA agent, hitching a ride with a primatologist (Dylan Walsh) and his gorilla friend, Amy (a puppet), through war-torn Zaire to track down her ex-fiance. The primatologist, Peter, has taught Amy to "talk," using sign language and a virtual-reality-glove translator, and all she's been talking about is going home to the jungle. The ex-fiance was in the Congo to find Zinj, the lost city of King Solomon's mines, and to bring back some pure diamonds for the Evil Corporation run by his father, Karen's boss. A Rumanian entrepreneur, Herkuma Humulka (Tim Curry, way over the top), also comes along for the ride and for the diamonds, and leading them all is safari-guide-of-fortune Monroe (Ernie Hudson), who sounds way too much like he should be named Jeeves.
It's Indiana Jones; it's King Kong; it's Born Free! And it is, rather inevitably, a mess.
Congo's main problem is that, ironically, Crichton's novels don't really translate to the screen. They are too intricately plotted for condensation to two hours, and the result is usually a plot-manipulation festival, held together with special effects and effusive overacting. Crucial background either gets omitted entirely, or else is relegated to breathless monologues and mini-lectures. Unless you've already read the book, you end up just riding along - which is fine when, as in Jurassic Park, you get an entertaining ride. But Congo is usually too bumpy to be much fun. Its characters are running from killer gorillas, and a volcano, and militant revolutionaries - not to mention the predatory hippos. (Say it aloud: "hippopotamus attack." I don't think so.) Before long, you're left wishing they had handed out programs at the door, so you could at least keep score.
Things only get worse when the action slows down, and someone actually gets to say something. "You're some kind of criminal," Peter's sidekick spits at Monroe when they meet. "Aren't we all?" Monroe replies, and they proceed to debate which is worse, scientists or gun-runners. Sometimes such breezy, nonchalant dialogue counterpoints rough-and-tumble action nicely: Bruce Willis's Die Hard patter comes to mind, or Harrison Ford's never-at-a-loss-for-a-wisecrack bravado in the Indiana Jones movies. Here, it comes across forced and pretentious. Peter quotes Yeats in a plane over north Africa, and Karen recognizes the allusion, and coughs up a pithy little quip of her own, in retort. I couldn't help thinking that if these folks didn't spend so much time thinking of clever things to say, some of their buddies would still be alive right now. Industrial Light and Magic's special effects obviously were meant to be Congo's saving grace, but most of the time - considering the cash that was dumped into them - they simply don't work. Zinj, when we finally get there, is at least interesting, but I had a hard time forgetting that most of the action took place on a sound stage. The actors seem to have had the same problem. And when the whole place comes crashing down, the demolition crew doesn't quite succeed in distracting us from how mind-numbingly lucky the fleeing explorers are, every one of the hundred times they narrowly avoid death.
The animals are slightly more successful; it isn't immediately clear that Amy isn't a real gorilla. But for all their efforts to make Amy and her pals seem realistic, the puppeteers fall into the trap of wanting to make them human, too. Amy sighs and rolls her eyes. She makes sophisticated use of metaphor. None of this succeeds in making her more endearing - the anthropomorphism throws a monkey wrench in the works, as it were. One wonders whether Amy might not be a primitive cousin to a Muppet, or maybe to Yoda.
The result of Industrial Light and Magic's efforts is that, rather than being drawn into believing the fantastic, we are forced to view the whole proceedings through a veil of chicanery. Great acting might have saved Congo, but alas, the techies got all the money. Director Frank Marshall must have been too busy coordinating all the special effects to work much with the actors; they don't seem to understand how to convince us that what we're seeing is real.
Congo had a great first weekend at the box office, apparently on the strength of Crichton hype. Nevertheless, you can't help wondering whether Crichton and Paramount aren't killing the cash cow. As the budgets get bigger, the stakes get higher, and it seems the producers of Congo might've spared a thought for the next movie. After such half-hearted efforts as this, audiences may not be so quick to spring for the price of admission. "You are the endangered species," Paramount tells us in the trailers and ads. I hope the same cannot be said of Industrial Light and Magic's and Mr. Crichton's reputations.