Looking back on the film 17 years later, I’m amazed at how forgiving a film critic I was in my youth. I loved the movie without reservation. As I write this, I’m realizing that “Congo” may have provoked the first review I ever wrote, and while that particular piece of prose is probably long gone, my affection for the film, however misplaced, isn’t. The film’s a goofy mess whose screws aren’t loose, but missing entirely. Frank Marshall had no idea what kind of movie he was making, which is highly unusual for a big-budget tentpole release. “Transformers” may suck, but you know exactly where it and Michael Bay stand. “Congo” is ethereal filmmaking, as if analyzing the picture will cause it to disintegrate and float away.
To write a plot synopsis for “Congo” in the year 2012 would be silly at best, but if you’re not familiar with it, it’s about killer gorillas. A tech company sends an expedition into the Congo for diamonds and then a subsequent expedition to look for the first that was brutally mauled (on camera, seen via satellite). There’s no logical explanation for anything that happens in the movie, including but not limited to a “good” gorilla that knows sign language and appreciates a good cigarette, a brutal African mercenary that rants endlessly about his sesame cake, and a climax so stupid that Alan Smithee wouldn’t want anything to do with it.
The actors all think they’re in different films, but it’s hard to blame them because the screenplay (by noted Oscar-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley) is so unintelligible. It sets out as serious action fare, veers into camp, then into broad comedy, topped off with a touch of political commentary and scenery chewing (mostly from Hudson and Curry). Sometimes this happens all in one scene. During the middle of the film, the narrative skates from an impromptu “California Dreamin’” sing-along to a poorly staged hippo attack within 90 seconds. Yet, I suppose this inanity eventually gives way to charm. There’s no other way to cope with the film than to skip the first four stages of grief and move right to “acceptance.”
“Congo” was the subject of several schoolroom conversations I had in the fall of 1995. My 4th grade classmates laughed hysterically about the “evil” gorillas illogically jumping off their perches into a river of lava, and I laughed with them. I kept my affinity for the film a secret. Did I know how stupid the movie was? Did I appreciate it on a subconscious level for what I now know it to be, or did I think it was genuinely a good film? Considering the lackluster box office, it’s amazing that any of my classmates saw the film. For a film whose tagline was “Where You Are The Endangered Species,” there was truth in advertising. “Congo” ticket buyers were indeed endangered that summer.
Hanging onto the films of your youth is a major component of growing into better movies. Some remain enjoyable from age 7 to age 27, but some lose their luster quicker than others. Nothing will ever pack the guttural punch that “Jurassic Park” did for me as a 7 year-old, but that’s what made it so special. What I appreciate that film as now only complements what I thought of it as a kid. “Congo,” on the other hand, is evidence that sentimentality can often trump common sense. In the end, I’m not sure what to make of it all these years later. The movie is a wreck in all respects (and lacks plenty of things that made “Jurassic Park” great – amazing CGI, Jeff Goldblum, etc.), but some small amount of excitement I had for it as a kid won’t ever leave me. Younger generations will likely have the same feelings toward the dumbest of modern day summer blockbusters. All we’ll be able to do is smile and say, “When I was your age…”
Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (OK)
Release Date: June 9, 1995
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Frank Marshall
Screenwriter: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Laura Linney, Dylan Walsh, Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry, Grant Heslov, Joe Don Baker, Bruce Campbell, Delroy Lindo, Joe Pantoliano
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for jungle adventure terror and action and brief strong language)