Thursday, October 15, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Congo (1995)

Well, for the latest episode of the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we watched the 1995 film Congo, adapted from the Michael Crichton novel. Yours truly served as the humble defendant. So did this adventure in diamond prospecting in the heart of Africa hold up? Listen to the podcast here and find out...

The Plot

After an expedition to find blue diamonds that could revolutionize the communications industry is mysteriously massacred, TraviCom head honcho R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker) dispatches Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney) to search for survivors--including his son Charles (Bruce Campbell)--and find the diamonds too. Along the way she joins forces with Dr. Peter Elliott (Dylan Walsh) and the gorilla Amy, whom he taught to speak using a bracelet that translates sign language. Also on the expedition is Herkemer Homulka (Tim Curry), a Romanian philanthropist who is much more than he seems, and Charles Munro (Ernie Hudson), "a great white hunter...who happens to be black." They make their way to the lost city of Zinj, only to encounter grisly horror...

The Good

*Although I've complained about film and television adaptations of books deviating from the source material many times before, simplifying the book's complicated plot actually made sense. If they wanted to keep the entire storyline--which included a race with a rival European-Japanese team and some material about white mercenaries in Africa--it would have made more sense to make it a one-season-and-done television series the way some British shows are. Either that or it'd be something resembling The Lord of the Rings, which they might not have had the budget for.

(Oh but that would have been cool, especially if the two rival expeditions physically clash with each other the way the Fellowship of the Ring and the Uruk-Hai do and the perils of man and nature were cranked up to 11.)

*The actors generally do a good job. Ernie Hudson is the most entertaining as Munro, while Linney and Walsh performed well too.

*The opening is generally well-done and gets to the "expedition gets massacred" pretty quickly. The eyeball sequence is straight from the book.

*There are some good quick bits of exposition, including Dr. Ross's and Charles' previous relationship--they were engaged ("I almost married him!"). If it weren't for the melodrama afterward, that would have been great. Amy's nightmares are also explained quickly without undue info-dumping, as well as a tribal revolt breaking out in Zaire.

*There are some nice little bits of comedy, including an African security official who doesn't know who Kafka is (and gets very upset), a corrupt African soldier, the "great white hunter" joke, and, "I don't have a price. I'm not a pound of sugar, I'm a primatologist." Yes, I liked that line. Here's a YouTube video of the detention scene, which has a lot of the comedy.

*The film has a very good orchestral score.

*Amy is played by a person in a suit, but she generally looks good and not, well, fake. The gorilla suit can even manage facial expressions.

*Once they actually get to Africa, everything moves along at a nice quick pace. It's never boring.

*Instead of Checkov's Gun, we have a Checkov's airplane. :)

The Bad

*The National Geographic-style opening of the film in which we see a bunch of picturesque shots of the African savanna and are gradually introduced to the original expedition rolling in aboard their vehicles got to the vehicles a little too slowly. They could've saved a couple minutes depicting the vehicles from the get-go.

*Although the opening is generally well-done, Bruce Campbell's scream of terror was not well-delivered.

*Back in Houston when the TraviCom head people learn about what happened to the expedition and decide to send a follow-up team, things get melodramatic. Dr. Ross is apparently still touchy about Charles and since she was engaged to him, she's probably privy to a lot of father-son issues, but it didn't come off well. Openly berating and threatening one's employer doesn't seem like a good way to stay employed, let alone get sent off on an important expedition. Maybe if the senior Travis had thrown some zinger about how he wouldn't put up with that if she weren't almost his daughter-in-law that might be better. Dr. Ross is a cool character (in both senses of the word) generally, but on the subject of Charles she gets really irrational and destructive.

*The senior Travis is a cranky jerk with few to no redeeming qualities. A bit two-dimensional.

*There's what comes off as an obvious product placement for the game Doom--yes, the original--pretty early in the film.

*Tim Curry's Romanian accent sounds rather annoying. Fortunately you get used to it pretty quickly.

*Why is the ape flying in the passenger area with everybody else? Maybe it was a private charter and so the ordinary rules don't apply, but I would think animals would generally go with cargo.

*The scene where some natives perform a ritual to recall the soul of a catatonic man goes on for too long. The point--a nice bit of local color and "we're not in Kansas anymore"--is made pretty quickly, but the ritual goes on for at least twice as long as it needs to.

*A character is wounded but dies for no apparent reason. Another character who survives in the books dies in the film. Not sure why they needed the change--either way, he's still not going to be joining the group, nor would the group stop for him.

The Verdict

A nice jungle adventure to see once. 8.0 out of 10.

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