Congo was a big movie when it came out. This thing cost $50MM to make and was compared with the likes Jurassic Park when it was originally released. It had the chops of Michael Crichton as the loosely attached writing credit and a relatively solid lineup of actors. It also had a talking gorilla. Do you know how much people loved talking monkeys in the 90’s? Lots. You might be wondering why, on this horror website, we are reviewing this mid-90s Frank Marshall blockbuster. I think we’ll all admit that this isn’t truly horror, so why don’t you read past the trailer below to see what our thoughts are on where this fits into the genre.
Reviewed by: Mark
This movie is very loosely based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name. Congo follows an expedition into Zaire (see what I did there) to achieve multiple different goals.
Firstly, we have Amy, a talking gorilla, and her handlers Peter (Dylan Walsh) and Richard (Grant Heslov). They are on a quest to return Amy to her titular home before her brain turns to mush because she’s been in captivity for too long. There’s a solid chunk of screen time explaining how and why she is able to talk (something about sign language and a computer in a backpack), but it really doesn’t feel like the movie believes its own contrivances.
Secondly we have Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney), ex-CIA agent and certified badass, appropriating the expedition for her own corporate financed goals of rescuing her on-again-off-again fiance and the equipment that her company sent into the jungle.
Lastly, we have a cast of hangers on to support both objectives. Captain Munro (Ernie Hudson) is the de facto leader of the expedition and handles all the dirty details. Herkermer Homolka (Tim Curry) is a foreign treasure hunter with a penchant for diamonds and the worst accent you’ve ever heard Tim Curry do. Joe Pantoliano is a… well… I’m not really sure. Travel agent maybe? It’s unclear.
As the expedition nears its final goal of the campsite of Ross’s fiance (notably played by Bruce Campbell), they stumble across the abandoned historical diamond mine that 75% of the characters were secretly searching for the whole time. Unfortunately, it’s guarded by a pack of murderous selectively bred demon gorillas that want to fuck shit up and chew bubble gum. I’ll let you guess as to what their bubblegum stockpile level is. The team is systematically cut down by the gorilla attacks until Dr. Ross decides to supercharge her laser cannon with the “chemically pure” diamonds that are lying all over the place. You might think that I’m leaving out some critical backstory there but I’m really not.
The climax of the movie entails the remnants of the expedition lasering their way through mutant gorillas out of an actively erupting volcano so that they can escape in a hot air balloon. That is not an exaggeration and the movie handles this absurdity with 100% seriousness.
What the Movie Does Right
I’ll start with Amy, but this one might be a bit divisive depending on who you watch the movie with. As I said earlier, Congo was built of the same mold as Jurassic Park. Unfortunately the special effects team couldn’t figure out how to work their magic with animals that had hair. As a result they had to take a relatively different approach to Amy, who wound up being a combination of a gymnast in a suit and a remote controlled animatronic face. I’m not willing to go as far as stating that the effect has aged well, but I do still think it looks acceptable. Going back in the google time machine to the year this thing came out you can find numerous articles about people trying to figure out how they were able to train a gorilla to act so well, so it’s also safe to say that at the time people took this as a very believable effect. With practical, you gotta give credit where its due.
There’s also something charming about how seriously the movie delivers its absurd storyline. I mean come on, there’s a diamond powered laser that can shoot satellites out of the sky and the team escapes from mutant gorillas (and regular guerillas for that matter) in a hot air balloon, there are machine guns on motion activated tripods, there are heat seeking missiles that are shot down by flare guns, and all of this is handled with deadpan seriousness. This might turn some people off, but those people are boring weirdos that hate fun. If you don’t think that Tim Curry’s utterly bonkers accent in this movie is charming and wonderful, then you and I need to have some words.
It also strikes a great balance between horror and adventure. This is what brought us here in the first place - now I’ll readily admit that 90% of the movie is just your standard Indiana Jones-esque adventure movie and not traditional horror fare, but there is significant screen time dedicated to shit that is legitimately scary. The opening sequence (starring Bruce Campbell) is straight up horror, as he is pelted with his buddy’s eyeball after venturing too far into the monkey temple. There is also a very solid suspenseful scene in a river, wherein the team is attacked by a freaking hippo of all things. The mutant gorillas at the end are also treated similar to how other horror monsters are handled. This movie is a slight re-write away from being standard monster-in-jungle genre horror.
Lastly, and I’m not going to belabor this point, but every time I watch this movie I end up with California Dreamin’ stuck in my head for weeks. It’s not like it’s a hard scene to pull off, but I still love it for what it is.
What the Movie Does Wrong
Should I start with Amy again? You can take or leave her appearance as an effect, but it also seems like she is utterly shoehorned into the plot simply so there can be a talking monkey. Really, it’s indicative of the movie’s script as a whole. It’s long and winding, and wreaks of a book-to-movie adaptation. There’s extraneous plot elements that were clearly attached to larger storylines that were cut from the movie. There are characters that just completely don’t make sense. And the larger lack of attention to detail spreads itself throughout the movie. Case in point: Amy speaks through speakers in her backpack, but she can still be heard speaking when she isn’t wearing her backpack. I hope someone was fired for that blunder.
As complimentary as I am of the practical effects associated with Amy, there is an equal amount of regrettable CG. As I breezed by earlier, the movie’s climax takes place in an actively erupting volcano. In the 90’s that means that you need to have a healthy amount of lava. The CG lava in this thing is wildly regrettable. Frankly, I don’t think they were able to realistically model fluids at the time, and the result is predictably unrealistic looking. To add insult to injury, everything that catches on fire in the lava’s path appears to just be small burning cotton ball that are superimposed onto the scene.
Finally, this is largely a complaint approaching the movie as a horror experience. There’s about 90% of this movie that is spent wisecracking, feeding cocktails to fake gorillas, and shooting missiles out of the sky. If you’re entering this as a horror experience, that’s going to leave you sorely underserved. Granted, this is also what makes it a great gateway into horror movies, but this could easily break in either direction.
Story: 6 - I’m giving this movie substantial bonus points for having a badass female lead character in the 90s who is only partially motivated by romance. Outside of that, there are some unique plot elements here that are serviceable for delivering the necessary plot elements and drama. Outside of that, this movie’s connective tissue is severely lacking, and the resulting film suffers greatly as a result. Just don’t pull on the loose thread in the sweater and it won’t fall apart. That’s all it takes.
World-Building / Immersion: 5 - They shot on multiple locations to really set the scene of the jungle. Beyond that, the sets that they did film on look surprisingly good, if slightly resembling a Legends of the Hidden Temple episode. As far as immersion goes, the acting is simultaneously good enough to be enticing and terrible enough to be repulsive. I mean, just watch a clip of Tim Curry’s accent and see how that hits you.
Scare-Factor: 2 - Too late to not belabor this one. It’s easy to argue that this isn’t a horror movie. That being said, this could also catch you off guard if you aren’t used to scary things. Scare of snakes? Scared of murky rivers? Scared of mutant gorillas? Scared of eyeballs? All of these things feature enough in this movie to make you uncomfortable.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6 - This is probably the most divisive category for this movie. It all really comes down to how much you like the look of Amy. I think it’s understandable if you don’t think she’s realistic, but ultimately I think it’s a pretty likeable effect. Beyond that, there’s an unfortunate amount of CG lava and fire. Luckily, it’s only in the final few minutes.
Overall: 4.5 - I recognize that objectively this is a worse-than-average movie. Subjectively, this is one of my favorite movies that comes out of my 90s movie time capsule. I’ll happily throw this on in a double feature with True Lies or Speed. Jake, our low energy compatriot on this website, has seen this movie literally dozens of times for exactly this reason and talks about it being one of his gateways into the horror genre in his childhood. Take it for what it is (a charming adventure movie with horror elements) and you’ll have a good time. Expect a serious monster movie set against a backdrop of geopolitical conflict and you’ll probably be sorely disappointed.