What “Congo” lacks most is a sense of purpose, with the group embarking on their quest before the requisite groundwork has been laid and the filmmakers trying to provide needed exposition on the run.
The story opens with an explorer, Charles Travis (Bruce Campbell), disappearing in the Congo region of Africa while seeking diamonds for the Texas-based conglomerate TraviCom. The final glimpse before the satellite picture goes black are several dead bodies and a simian-like face.
Also working on the project is Travis’ ex-fiancee, Karen Ross(Laura Linney), who quickly takes off to find him, even if Charles’ boss/father (Joe Don Baker) seems far more concerned about the diamonds than his son.
A former CIA operative, Ross commandeers a safari involving a primatologist (Dylan Walsh) seeking to return his mountain gorilla Amy — who can “speak” using sign language and a verbal translator — to the jungle. Along for the ride is Herkermer Homolka (Tim Curry), a badly accented fortune-seeker determined to find the diamond-laden lost city of Zinj, and Monroe Kelly (Ernie Hudson), a badly accented mercenary who leads the expedition.
Whatever John Patrick Shanley’s script may have tried to do in adapting Crichton’s book, it clearly feels as if the picture were edited to leave the action sequencesin while removing any connecting material that might have helped them make sense.
In the book for example, Ross was leading a purely mercenary mission to locate the diamonds, racing a rival corporation to reach the site. This at least possessed some logic, compared with the half-baked motivations and marginally defined goals here.
On the flip side, Marshall barely touches on the spooky sense one derived from Amy’s finger paintings or the group’s tense and extended stand-off with the city’s brutal guardians. In short, the movie adds flourishes that don’t work, while omitting others that would have seemed natural for the bigscreen.
Having decided to proceed without big-name actors, the filmmakers clearly hoped that Amy — wide-eyed and marvelously expressive as realized by Stan Winston (“Jurassic Park”) — will emerge as the film’s “star.” The ape is indeed an impressive technical achievement, but in the pell-mell rush to get through the jungle, she provides only a few scenes adorable enough to justify the trip.
The human performers are left to struggle gamely, with Linney appropriately tough and Walsh doing a creditable job playing opposite the gorilla. Curry practically gags on his accent, while Hudson — obviously relishing his Bond-ian role — provides most of the pic’s best moments but sounds too much like he’s trying to impersonate Sean Connery.
Technically, pic scores points with its lush jungle vistas, elaborate production design and all-hell-breaks-loose finale, though despite Winston’s achievement with Amy, the gray gorillas are something of a let-down. A sky-diving sequence actually provides the most visually stunning shot, while Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds like a rehash of “The Lion King.”
Crichton writes in such a cinematic fashion that it remains a mystery why his books haven’t been more effectively adapted to film creatively, though his sure-fire box office track record makes it doubtful any safaris will be chartered to unlock that riddle.