Weird Wednesday: Congo

Welcome to the Soothsayer’s Weird Wednesday. I’m not the Soothsayer. For the month of November, I will be filling in on Wednesdays to allow our host to get that sleep he never gets and to bring you a different flavor of review. I’ll be taking a look into my own crystal ball to bring you my version of the truth, tying it into either a special say that arrives that week or a movie release on the Friday. Thanks for reading and enjoy.

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In 1993, Steven Spielberg took Michael Crichton’s novel, JURASSIC PARK, and brought it to the big screen. The movie thrilled audiences and sparked a wave of films based off of the author’s work. RISING SUN and DISCLOSURE took to the concrete jungle of business but in 1995 Frank Marshall returned to the wilderness with CONGO.

Crichton wrote the novel as a modern variation of the classic adventure story. Like Heart of Darkness or, more aptly, King Solomon’s Mines. Like its genre counterparts Crichton’s CONGO follows a group of explorers deep into the jungle where they face off against the natives, the animals and the environment itself but the most obvious villain is a group of grey gorillas that guard the mountain. The novel is a fast paced yarn with plenty of Crichton’s trademark science.

The film version follows the same basic plot and includes the same characters. These include Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney), who is searching for a missing friend, Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), who is searching for a home for a gorilla that he has taught to speak in sign language, Captain Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson), a gun-runner and guide searching for a payday and Herkermer Homolka (Tim Curry), a Romanian expatriot searching for the lost city of Zinj also known as King Solomon’s Mine. Despite some strong, if zany, performances by the entire cast and even a Stan Winston created gorilla the movie fails to live up to both the novel and the adventure genre.

The first act drags on way too long and sets up the characters one after the other as characters but not as people. We know what they do but not who they are and so it is almost impossible to care about them or their exploits. It doesn’t help that once the exploits start it is one problem after another without much connection in between. Frank Marshall cut his teeth working under Steven Spielberg on some of the greatest adventure films of all time, the INDIANA JONES trilogy, but all he seems to have picked up is that you need to keep moving.

Quickly upon arrival in Africa, Captain Munro takes over as guide and the characters that we had any sort of compassion for are sidelined so that Munro could get them into and then out of one scrape after another. Nothing happens of any importance for at least the first half of the movie. It’s a nightmare of plotting. In the novel we know what the goal is and why they need to get there and there’s even a timeline issue involved. In the movie they seem to be able to take all the time in the world and even schmooze, read bribe, an African warlord and we never find out why their destination is so important.

The climax of the film involves a tribe of violent gorilla’s guarding a diamond mine on an exploding volcano. This exemplifies the entire movie. One problem leads into the next without any explanation. Why does anything in this movie need to happen? The plot circles back to the main characters at this point but it is too little, too late. The movie is over and Marshall never made us care.

Michael Crichton passed away in 2008 and is remembered as the father of the techno-thriller genre of novel. He branched into movies with Westworld and then became the first writer to have the number one novel (Disclosure), the number one film (JURASSIC PARK) and the number one television show (E.R.) in the same year. Congo the novel is a thriller worthy of his resume; the movie isn’t.

2 out of 5

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