Skip to main content

Stop eating my sesame cake!


Congo
(1995)

I doubt that Congo would be top of anyone’s list of Michael Crichton adaptations. Indeed, the Golden Raspberries  (generally a boorishly literal arbiter of quality) gave it the dubious honour of seven nominations. I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as that rotting garland might suggest, although neither is it especially good. The picture’s one saving grace is a sensibility usually quite foreign to Crichton’s self-important storytelling; it sets out to have a bit of fun.


Post-Jurassic Park, there was renewed interest in the author’s work (the ‘80s were significant for producing only under-achieving directorial efforts from Crichton himself), and the prospect of utilising the CGI that brought dinosaurs to life was seen as the key to realising the apes of Congo. This stumbled when hair was found to be tricky (even the King Kong remake, 10 years later, renders a very definitely CG creation for all its detail; even with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, for my money suits and animatronics are less distracting). Kathleen Kennedy sequestered Stan Winston to make ape the suits, which are pretty good for what they are, and brought in hubby Frank Marshall to direct. As I understand it, Crichton wasn’t overly impressed with the results and wished he’d been consulted. I don’t think that would have helped matters, as a big part of the picture’s problems derive from his source material.


Crichton was inspired to write a King Solomon’s Mines-style adventure, and pitched it as a film even before he’d written the novel (which was published in 1980). So this is a tale of lost cities, valuable diamonds, strange tribes, exploding volcanoes and hitherto undiscovered animal species. And, being Crichton, cutting edge technology. In the novel, the diamonds were required for boring old semiconductors. The movie changes this so they now power communications lasers. Much sillier and zappier, and therefore appropriate to the general tone. Also to be learnt from Congo; African countries in a state of political upheaval are a whole a lot of fun! Did I mention the talking ape, Amy? I guess she’s the key attraction. I’ve never really seen the appeal of monkey movies, Planet of the Apes excepted. Their underling anthropomorphic tendencies don’t draw me in, and having one talk in a computerised girly voice derived from sign language does nothing to persuade me otherwise. But this is element makes it abundantly clear; the only way to adapt the novel without throwing out half the plot is to embrace its essential silliness. With a talking ape you can’t even rely on a sub-Indiana Jones semi-seriousness.


Having said that, Congo probably has more merit than the most recent Indy movie (it’s a close call, but at least Congo makes me laugh in places). The production actually bothered going to Africa to film, while Spielberg and Lucas showed stayed at home. If Crystal Skull looks like it was filmed entirely on sound stages (even the bits that weren’t), the joins in Congo are readily apparent, particularly during the lost city climax. That seems appropriate, however. I can’t imagine any version of this movie not being cheesy. If it had been made during the ‘70s it would have featured Doug McClure.


As such, Frank Marshall is exactly the right guy for the job. Spielberg’s long time producing partner has only directed four features but could have directed 10 for all I knew. He’s so anonymous that I confuse him with another of the Spielberg family, Joe Johnston. Marshall debuted with Arachnophobia, trumpeted to be Jaws for spiders to public indifference. I suspect it was too formulaic in its adventure-comedy styling, aware that a determined effort to make spiders scary would be a tougher sell than it seemed. He followed it with plane crash cannibalism, Alive. He’s competent, but so bland. You could interchange his with Johnston’s work on the same year’s Jumanji and I doubt that anyone would notice the difference.


Confusing the key personnel seems to be a running theme for me with this movie. I had the vague recollection that Chris O’Donnell was the lead. Remember O’Donnell, the least memorable would-be young star of the ‘90s? I guess devotees of NCIS: Los Angeles will respond in the affirmative. I’ve never troubled myself with it, and I doubt I am missing out. Having also never bothered with Nip/Tuck, I had no idea who actual lead of this picture was even on seeing his name.  The visage of Dylan Baker only drew blanks. Was this the slightly less shlubby older brother of Seth Rogen? What had the director seen in him? What had the director seen in the script? Michael Crichton’s name in bold letters, probably. Baker’s ape fancier is as unengaging as Marshall’s direction, so they suit each other perfectly.


It could have been so different. Bruce Campbell, who appears in the prologue as the leader of the lost expedition that ignites the plot, was up for Baker’s role. Instead he received the consolation prize of a character that is offed in the first five minutes. He’s a blast during those few minutes, coming on great guns and with lines like “This whole place does the shimmy!” you’d think he was adlibbing. The makers add insult to injury by dangling the carrot that he might be still alive (Laura Linney’s motivation for going in search) only for his (or an extra’s) corpse to show up during the third act.


But, imagining Campbell as the lead, the movie suddenly makes sense. You can see him trading ham with Tim Curry, Delroy Lindo and Ernie Hudson. And the grating cuteness of the gorilla expert and his ape companion takes on a whole new dimension of self-awareness. The picture instantly becomes a camp classic, making a virtue out of all its deficiencies. The point where Baker, the animal lover, pulls out a gun and starts killing angry apes becomes hilarious if Campbell replaces him.


In the final film it is spectacularly misjudged. A movie that, if it has any message, is about man messing with nature rather than preserving it (a hot Crichton theme that, interfering with the natural order) climaxes with the protagonists blasting the aberrant new species into extinction. And we’re presumably supposed to go along with this? I mean, it is funny because it’s such an oblivious choice. And the sight of Laura Linney laser-zapping the crazed creatures is spectacularly silly ("Put them on the endangered species list!"). The novel speculated that these apes where gorilla/chimpanzee hybrids or gorilla/human hybrids. The latter is unsurprisingly dropped as this is very much a kids’ movie, but thematically it makes sense; the interaction between Baker and Amy verges on Max Mon Amour tenderness.


So be grateful for the trio of Curry, Hudson and Lindo. Linney is game, but her role doesn’t allow for much exaggeration; Grant Heslov, Joe Don Baker and Joe Pantoliano all make an impression, and there’s an early role for Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. But none of them are blessed with the opportunities for scene-chewing that these three wholeheartedly seize. Curry plays a “Romanian philanthropist” complete with an outrayyygeous accent that wouldn’t sound out of place on an episode of ‘Allo”Allo. I’ve never paid much attention to Hudson’s career; he’s the most boring part of Ghostbusters, so I didn’t expect him to be so funny. His accent is that of a posh English toff and his cheerful bravado towards adventure is a consistent high note; “Monroe Kelly; I’m your… great white hunter for this trip. Though I…  happen to be black”. Hudson is having a great time. “I’m black, I should have luggage on my head” he says, as explanation for a tribesman’s surprise that he is head of the expedition. Lindo is only on screen for a few minutes, but his heavily accented (they’re all at it!) Captain Wanta manages to steal a scene from Curry (no mean feat) as he screams at him “Stop eating my sesame cake!”)


If it weren’t for Timeline, Congo might even hold the dubious distinction of being the worst Crichton adaptation. Unlike Timeline, Congo was a moderate hit. It made the Top 10 of the summer of ’95 to the tune of $150m (inflation-adjusted). I don’t think anyone’s going to claim Marshall did the novel a great disservice. You can’t make a silk purse out of a gorilla’s ear. And for the first two-thirds the picture splutters along in a likably silly fashion. Come the lost city, however, and the director is engulfed with substandard clichéd action heroics and plot developments. The earlier sections had a bit of fun with the familiar tropes, but by the end they just become tiresome.

**



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.