‘Congo’ Review: “Ugly Gorillas, Go Away”

Posted in The Screening Room by - June 11, 2015

Monster Movie month, at least for me, is all about over-the-top performances, great practical effects, and a general sense of fun. Monster movies aren’t supposed to take themselves deathly serious *cough cough* Cloverfield *cough cough*, and if they do, they should be able to stand under the weight of the seriousness like The MistCongo, while serious in some scenes, is a total guilty pleasure for me, and a film that is unfairly maligned by a large portion of the film-going audience because it isn’t Jurassic Park. I say that because since the film is based on the book of the same title by the master of techno-science, Michael Crichton, so everyone was expecting it to be Jurassic Park with killer apes.

The film follows Dr. Peter Elliott, a primatologist at UC Berkeley, as he goes on an expedition to the Congo’s Virunga region to reintroduce Amy, a gorilla that can speak through the use of sign language glove, to the wild. Along the way, he is joined by Dr. Karen Ross, a tech expert from TraviCom looking for her fiancee, Captain Munro Kelly, a hunter and mercenary who guides them, and Herkermer Homolka, a Romanian philanthropist who pays for the expedition. The four of them brave the wilds and political unrest of Africa to attempt to return Amy to her natural habitat. It is revealed later in the film that Herkermer is looking for the fabled lost city of Zinj, the place of King Solomon’s wealth and source of his diamonds. Herkermer believes that Amy knows the location of the city and that, by funding the expedition, he will become rich beyond his wildest dreams. 

Notwithstanding the somewhat convoluted plot, the performances by the cast are the real standouts of the film. Dylan Walsh, who I was primarily only familiar with due to his work on the phenomenal Nip/Tuck, develops a believable relationship with Amy. The bond that the two share replaces the typical love story of other films in a surprisingly successful way. Laura Linney is also fantastic as the stern and serious Dr. Ross. I haven’t seen Linney in many things, other than the hilariously insane The Mothman Prophecies, and she is a worthy foil to the light-hearted Walsh. Strong female characters were one of Crichton’s trademarks, and Linney does a great job in filling that role. 

Ernie Hudson is probably my favorite actor in the film, getting to interview him two months ago notwithstanding. He is a total badass while also pulling off that snarky, quick wit that most viewers associate with his time in the Ghostbusters franchise. He is a master of his surroundings; cracking jokes and shooting violent apes point blank with an assault rifle. Tim Curry is just, my lord, he is Tim Curry. I can’t think of a film that I’ve seen him in that doesn’t make me think “Tim Curry can do anything, period”. He has gone from transsexual to giant devil to a singing pirate, all while keeping that signature Tim Curry charm. His eastern-European accent is suitably nuts but he pulls it off with aplomb in a way that only Curry can.

Special attention should be given however to the supporting cast, which is filled with a veritable who’s who of character actors and up-and-comers. Bruce Campbell, yes that Bruce Campbell, is in the first scene of the film, and plays Linney’s fiance. He doesn’t do much, other than scream and look scared, but it’s always nice to see Campbell outside of Sam Raimi’s films. Along with Campbell, we also get one of the most unintentionally hilarious and quotable scenes from the film featuring the always fantastic Delroy Lindo playing the corrupt Captain Wanta. 

Whenever I think of Congo I think of this scene, primarily because of how insanely Lindo delivers the line. There are other cameos or bit parts that are random in a 90s way: Jimmy Buffett as a airliner pilot, John Hawkes as man scared to death by an ape, and Joe Pantoliano as a fixer of sorts, who outfits the expedition in Africa. Pantoliano rocks a sweet hat, and Hawaiian shirt; it’s American ex-pat stereotyping at its finest.

However, the absolute best part of the film are the gorilla performers, all of which are created through practical effects. If Congo had been made now, all of the gorillas would have been CGI, and been jumping off the walls possibly wielding lightsabers. However, all of the performances in the film are performed by real people which, as our TMNT franchise podcast revealed, isn’t all fun and games. While the performers in the turtle suits were at least standing, the performers in the gorilla suits are hunched over, and have to walk on all fours during the majority of the film. While only in the climax in the film, the stunts that “ugly gorilla” performers are impressive, and make the climax feel more organic and real.

Special note should be given to Lorene Noh and Misty Rosas, the two performers from inside the Amy suit. Amy is the centerpiece of the film, and the performers truly give her a memorable performance, one that would be lost on today’s CGI-heavy Hollywood. At point we even get Amy smoking a cigar, and in another scene she drinks a martini, yes, a martini. Everyone involved in the creation of the gorillas should be applauded as there is a large amount of them in the climax of the film, and while they are stylized, it’s still impressive.

Congo isn’t Jurassic Park, and honestly it isn’t trying to be. It doesn’t have that Spielbergian feel that Jurassic does, and it tells just as interesting a story. Yes, the overall plot is a tad convoluted, and some of the effects haven’t aged well, but it has heart with fantastic performances all around, no matter how small. It’s one of those films that was unfairly maligned due to its comparison to a film that was similar in content but vastly different in reality. Check out Congo, it’s worth your time, and it’s on Netflix. 

Final Say: Watch It

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Chris Stachiw is the Editor-in-Chief and co-host of the Kulturecast. He's a native Californian with a penchant for sarcasm and a taste for the cinematic bizarre. You'll often find him wandering the wasteland of Nebraska searching for the meaning of life and possibly another rare Pokemon.
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