RECAP: Congo

Congo (1995): Frank Marshall

Diamonds, we are told, are a girl’s best friend. But what if they were also a murderous sub-species of gorilla’s best friend? What if those gorillas were bred by humans to protect central African diamond mines known to an Israelite king thousands of years ago? And what if there was a movie about them, and it also had famed cinematic ham Bruce Campbell in it? Well, you’d have Congo.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Two scientists search the depths of the Congolese jungle, one to find a source of diamonds and the other to return home a talking gorilla, while everyone involved meets the world’s most aggressive gorillas.

Hero (5/10)

Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney) works at the Houston headquarters of telecommunications behemoth TraviCom. Her role is unclear, but it’s important, because she meets the CEO daily and communicates with his son, Charlie (Bruce Campbell) halfway across the world in Zaire.

Her connections drag her into a quick rescue mission after the CEO’s son goes missing. Partly she’s sent to Africa to save the son, partly to retrieve some special blue diamonds the company wants for new communications technology.

To enter Zaire, Ross needs a cover. The visa situation is tricky, so she must attach herself to a different expedition to gain entry to the country. Lucky for her, Ross has deep pockets and a special skill set honed working for the CIA, her previous job. She’ll need both to survive her mission.

Dr. Ross on the telecoms.

Ross hooks up with a team escorting a talking gorilla back to her birth habitat, coincidentally in Zaire. The gorilla, Amy, is actually the hero of Congo, but most Hollywood movies demand human heroes, so I’ll drag Ross into the lead category as well.

Amy has spent most of her live at the University of California, Berkeley as the subject of a research experiment run by Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh). Thanks to a special glove that translates sign language, Amy can speak. Amy has used her speech to tell Elliot that she wants to go home.

Elliot leads the mission to return Amy to the jungle while Ross funds the journey with TraviCom money. It’s a complex set-up, but have you tried traveling into corrupt African nations? It ain’t easy.

Ross and Amy get off on the wrong foot. Amy calls Ross and ugly woman, for reasons Elliot promises to but does not explain. The two females keep their distance, each on their own journeys.

Ross is getting things done on the ground. When the team lands in “Central Africa,” it learns that Zaire warlords are currently overthrowing their government, and the borders are closed. Not the best time to try to enter the country.

Remember that Ross has deep pockets. She pays a local warlord $50,000 to hire a prop plane and a dozen men to escort them into Zaire. She tries to hire them for $20,000, but the guy wants more. Either sum seems paltry for the risk involved.

Surprise surprise, the border crossing does not go well. The plane is shot down, though after its passengers have parachuted safely from it. On the ground Ross gets to show off her planning skills. Pop tents, inflatable rafts, even air conditioners are stuffed in a few yellow boxes strong enough to survive a fall from a plane.

That’s not to mention the weapons. Ross is on a rescue mission, and she packs accordingly. Lasers, machine pistols, flares, copious guns–they’re all on the manifest and all needed. Ross doesn’t have much to do until the team reaches the lost city of Zinj, source of the blue diamonds and home to murderous silver gorillas.

I’m Amy. I’m Amy. Tickle me. Tickle me.

Amy, meanwhile, has less to do. She leads the team toward her home, which happens to be the next gorilla neighborhood over from Zinj. She’s seen the city’s symbol, an open eye, in her nightmares and drawn it many times, attracting one of the financiers, Homolka (Tim Curry) I’ll get to later.

Amy longs to rejoin gorilla society, but her kind find her weirdly attached to humans. Poor Amy doesn’t belong in either world. As a lonely gorilla she’s forced to mother a doll.

When the humans enter Zinj, Amy is not to be seen. She’s spending her time reconnecting with her kind. Only later does she show up to save the day.

Amy is the true hero, the character I wanted to succeed most. There are two different stories running parallel in Congo.

Villain (3/10)

Animals have a long history of playing villains in movies: King Kong, Jaws, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. With little or no personalities, cunning, or plans, these creatures need to exhibit such features onscreen, preferably for the entire movie.

The gorillas of Congo ravage the humans in the opening sequence before disappearing for an hour. They show up again to protect their diamonds, and do so savagely and with agency.

We need more of them. Much of Congo is spent navigating the intricacies of nations run by warlords and difficult border crossings. We lose much of the gorilla danger because of the human dangers, though the gorillas and their diamonds are what the movie is about.

I guess living underground does a number on gorilla faces.

Make no mistake, these apes are nasty. Trained by the humans running the mines, the gorillas killed their masters and took over the place, while maintaining strict protection of the diamonds. Any human and, thanks to the discovery of a pile of gorilla bones, any gorilla entering Zinj dies.

Their preferred method of killing is ripping limbs and heads from torsos. One ape throws a human head at Ross and her party before Ross shoots it. Later we see the apes surround Homolka and bash his skull in. They are vicious beasts; they learned from humans.

What’s left unsaid is their reason for anger. These creatures have been without human masters for centuries. Surely they would return to a wild state. They would not remain hidden in the diamond city. They would not protect the diamonds.

Finally, these creatures are ugly, continuing a long human tradition of attaching villainy to ugliness. Shame. Amy even calls them “ugly gorillas.”

Action/Effects (2/10)

Dr. Ross brings a plane load of guns and gear on her trek into the jungle. Good thing, too.

After the team enters the lost city of Zinj, it spends a night there. Why the trekkers do this is unclear; no one forced it upon them. Maybe the screenwriters did.

Either way, Ross orchestrates the defense of the camp. First come the ultraviolet lamps. These lights give the ruins and greenery a purple hue. Ross also activates a thermal scanner, visualizing the gorillas menacing the camp’s perimeter.

The lasers and machine pistols repel the angry beasts. They are smart, testing the perimeter and being shot at. The automatic guns rotate parallel to the ground, so the gorillas can avoid the bullets if they remain low (though they would not know that). The lasers trigger the guns and burn the gorillas, so they are a double whammy.

Either this is the laser-protected camp or a well-armed group of Coachella fans.

Amy holds her doll as the angry apes attack several areas. “They’re too damn smart,” one laments, a statement as obvious as it is true. The gorillas mount a two-sided attack on the lasers, triggering the guns and also flares, which arc across the space, and would scare any animal breaching the camp.

One of the guides blasts away with a shotgun while the other guards fire machine guns. It’s hard to tell if they hit any enemies. A tree falls into the camp, perhaps shot down or perhaps shoved down by the gorillas. Whichever it is, the apes do not resume the attack. They have fled for the night.

This brief scene shows off how much humanity’s technology has advanced since ancient times. The gorillas were defensive weapons of the day, but they are no match for lasers and automatic weapons.

Or are they? Dun dun DUN.

Sidekicks (4/8)

Dr. Elliot is both caregiver and friend to Amy. He studies her, and thanks to his mechanical arm device allows her to speak English. Elliot is an optimist who believes in the “inherent generosity in the human spirit,” which must be true because why else would he easily agree to travel to Zaire with a talking gorilla?

Elliot is, of course, unlike his ape companion, no match for the jungle. He’s a man who knows when he’s in over his head. He decides to call off the mission moments after the plane entering the country explodes. Well done, Elliot. Should be an easy exit from Zaire now. He wakes one morning with a leech attached to his dick, and all the other humans laugh at him.

Elliot looking badass, or trying.

Amy and Elliot are sweet together. Several Africans joke that they are like husband and wife, and they aren’t far off. Amy loves tickles. Elliot tickles her. Elliot makes martinis for Amy on a tough flight. His relationship with Amy allows him to be the only human to stand his ground when yelled at by a wild silverback.

Elliot’s only problem is that Walsh resembles Steve Guttenberg, who played a similar master character in Short Circuit to the exceptionally intelligent robot Johnny Five. Both robot and Amy the gorilla could conceivably tell humans, “I’m alive.” The resemblance distracted me enough to think producers cast Walsh on purpose.

Kelly definitely looking badass.

Every team of Americans in Africa needs an African guide, and Captain Monroe Kelly (Ernie Hudson) is their man. With an unknown accent Kelly coolly guides the scientists across Zaire’s border, navigating the swiftly changing situations, both political (national and tribal) and natural.

Kelly is here mostly to be the only black character in goddamn Africa, carry big guns, and look cool shooting them. If this were the ’80s he’d be smoking cigars in every scene.

Henchmen (1/8)

Zinj is the life quest of the Romanian Herkermer Homolka, liberated to fly around the world now that Ceaușescu is dead. He’s the impetus of the jounrey, as he recognizes Amy’s nightmare drawings as the open eye of Zinj. He also translates the city’s hieroglyphs as “We are watching you.”

Homolka isn’t really a bad guy. He’s dishonest about his intentions, but he never leads the team astray. They are all looking for Zinj, though Homolka is the only person who knows what it’s called.

Tim Curry never does things without menace, and his quirky looks are in every scene. Otherwise, I don’t know why he’s here.

Stunts (2/6)

The coolest stunts are the people parachuting from the pilotless plane. After the plane enters Zaire’s airspace, soldiers try shooting it down with shoulder rockets. First, they try conventional weapons, but these explode before striking the aircraft.

Next, they load the heat-seeking missiles. Ross knows how best to counter these–with flares. She loads a flare gun, kicks open a side door, and fires. The first heat-seeker explodes at the flare. Kelly grabs a flare gun and they both fire, deterring the next pair of missiles.

The guards and porters strap on parachutes and bail, not because they are scared but because the pilots have already bailed on the plane, seemingly without telling anyone. Ross’s yellow crates of gear are thrown out the plane first. Next go the men. Homolka has to be kicked out. Kelly is the last to go, carrying the drugged Amy, who must weigh twice what he does.

The camera tracks two people as they fall out the plane and pull their chutes. Everyone lands safely, though many probably jumped for the first time, in an open area in the jungle. Clap your hands say yeah!

Climax (1/6)

The nasty eruption of Mt. Mukenko, the volcano nearby Zinj, is imminent. The humans remain at Zinj, but Amy has fled, returning to camp to retrieve her talking glove.

The humans exploring Zinj seem not to care about the volcano. The rumbling ground opens a hole beneath the remnants of the exploration team, sending it into a tunnel. Many of their people have already died at the hands of murderous gorillas.

The late heir to the TraviCom fortune.

After brief exploration they find a diamond mine. Orange, with a small stream flowing down the center, the single room is littered with dirt and diamonds. Homolka starts gathering the diamonds he’s sought his entire life. Trouble is, he doesn’t notice the dozens of doorways flanking the diamond floor.

Only one kind of creature could be concealed in those dark doorways. One of those gray gorillas leaps to face Homolka. Homolka drops the diamonds, but it’s too late; he’s marked himself. The ugly bastards surround Homolka and beat him to death after toying with him.

All the gorillas, dozens of them, join the fray now. They are thirsty for human blood, and I must say their gray coats contrast well with the orange set decoration. The remaining guards lay down gunfire. The bullets work well but the gorillas are too many.

They can’t go back the way they came, so they try the doorway in the other direction. Elliot, Kelly, and Ross head there, only to discover it is a geode. I guess that means they can’t escape?

Deeper into the crevasse lies the desiccated body of Charles Travis, ex-almost-fiance of Dr. Ross, and son of TraviCom’s CEO. She sheds a tear long enough to mourn him in these, the final moments of her life. She asks Kelly and Elliot to buy her two minutes.

With the other guards dead, only these three remain alive, and not for long because they are running out of bullets. The gorillas are not running out of gorillas nor rage.

Ross digs out a perfect diamond from the ground and jams it into the laser we saw young Charlie display early in the movie.

Kelly is killing gorillas falling from the air. They make excellent use of the three-dimensional space, attack from all angles. Another gorilla reaches Elliot and flings him into the orange room. The gorillas gather around and prepare for their team-building extermination exercise.

Amy saving her friend.

It’s not yet Ross’s time to shine with that laser. Amy has her moment now. She runs into the fray and roars. The angry apes might not care about a silverback yelling at them (recall the gorilla bone pile), but Amy is a smart gorilla. She yells while wearing her speaking device, saying, “Ugly gorillas, go away.”

The ugly gorillas listen. They were bred to listen, remember, and this must have some impression on them. Although they definitely don’t understand English. So there’s that. Whatever. The gorillas pick up on body language and stop hectoring Elliot long enough for Amy to hug her friend.

Now it’s Ross’s turn. She steps toward the beasts and lasers the shit out of some gorillas. Kelly asks what she’s got and she says it’s the latest in satellite communications.

Burn gorillas, burn!

Just in time, too, because lava is flowing into the mine now. There goes the neighborhood! Gorillas jump into the lava for some reason. The humans and Amy escape the mine. Dirt is flexing upward and sinkholes are opening. Great set design here.

Elliot and Amy are separated by a gap with lava beneath. Ross lasers a tree to collapse into a bridge and allow her friends escape. They flee the area as fire and brimstone does what centuries of jungle growth failed to do and reclaims Zinj for nature.

Before the humans leave, they have to say goodbye to Amy. A local silverback group accepts her, and she goes to join them. Elliot is clearly the sadder of the pair, as he should be.

Ross contacts her boss, and the CEO is upset about his son’s death, but he’s more upset about Ross holding out about getting another blue diamond. Ross, who promised to make him sorry if such were the case, makes him sorry by using the laser to blow up a satellite.

As the human trio of survivors floats away with a balloon, Ross can’t bear to part with the giant diamond that saved her life. So she asks Elliot to throw it away. He does.

Jokes (0/4)

I think Kelly was supposed to be funny. He doesn’t pull it off. I think Homolka was supposed to be funny. He was, accidentally. Congo is not funny.

Actually, this was funny. Amy like martinis.

Setting (1/4)

Africa: The film crew actually traveled to Africa to shoot parts of Congo. That’s why you see the giraffes and zebras and lions in many early shots. Thank goodness. African plains abound with African megafauna, and those images are never out of place. Really set the tone for the scenes occurring in “central Africa” [cough hack cough].

Zinj: Lots of problems here. The sets look cool, no doubt. The city architecture is straight out of the Angkor Wat blueprints, which I have no problem with except Angkor is about 6,000 miles from Congo.

Africa or Asia? I report; you decide.

Another problem: Zinj has been devoid of human use for centuries. Apes live there, sure, but apes also live happily in the jungle. The jungle has not reclaimed the city. The city is open in all areas, with only small plants growing on the floor. Where are the big plants choking the stones?

Another problem: the mine. This so-called mine is a single room with diamonds on the floor. Why is it orange as if being actively mined? Why is it small? Why is it so brightly lit if it is deep underground? Many questions unanswered.

The sets looked neat, but raised too many questions.

Commentary (0/2)

The political situation in Africa is unstable.

Left most untouched is the concept of animals speaking their minds. We can accept gorillas as being smart. We already know they are; it’s not fiction. How many other animal species could communicate with humans with the correct tools?

We know many creatures communicate with each other with sound, kind of how humans do it and did it for millions of years. Dolphins, elephants, monkeys: these are some of the most intelligent animals (as far as we know), and we know next to nothing about what they can say to each other.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Many white characters speak, even in Africa, before a black person joins the cast. [rolls eyes]

Look at all those white-ass people.

Elliot has a strange obsession with pretty and ugly gorillas. He often calls Amy a pretty girl, which makes little sense because how does he know? Beauty is in the eye…remember? He’s presumably trained Amy to hate human women. That Amy can tell a human female from male seems dubious; that she would give a shit is unexplained. At the end, when Amy joins the gorilla community, Elliot says she has found a “handsome fellow,” as if he would know.

I’d subtract another point, but putting Laura Linney in the lead role helps Congo succeed decades later.

Others

  • Director Frank Marshall made the documentary about the making of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In that movie, and in Congo, a character wears a dirty New York Yankees hat. Coincidence? I think not.

Summary (18/68): 26%

Critics ravaged Congo. I can’t figure out why. It’s not a good movie, but one reviewer called it the worst adaptation by a major author ever put to screen. Was this true at the time? I haven’t seen all the Stephen King movies, but they can’t all be good.

Perhaps it is true. In recent years Hollywood has unleashed Fifty Shades on the world, enough to obliterate any titles Congo might have held. Congo is perfectly watchable escapism.