How Are We All Not Constantly Screaming About ‘Congo’ 25 Years Later?

     June 9, 2020

Without a 2020 summer movie season to speak of, we’ve been forced to look back on the mid-year blockbusters of yore, to a different era, to a time when a studio would pay absolutely out the ass to make a film in which Laura Linney blasts an entire tribe of homicidal gorillas to fuck with a laser gun. Folks, we’re talking Congo. Holy shit, it’s Congo day. Congo is now 25 years old. Congo can legally rent a car in most states and drive to your home whenever it damn well pleases. Congo remains such a fascinatingly specific snapshot of what it was like to live and watch movies in the year 1995 that you can’t even say “Congo” out loud without Shaggy‘s “Boombastic” playing wistfully in the distance. And yet, despite having the critical pans-to-box-office-success ratio to signify a major cult classic, Frank Marshall‘s sci-fi adventure hasn’t lived on in the pop culture consciousness the same way as, say, aggressively 90s creature-schlock like Anaconda. We’ve treated Congo like the parents of Springwood, Ohio treated Freddy Kreuger, hoping that to simply forget would rob this thing of its terrible power. But after a recent rewatch, the question is less about why we don’t discuss Congo more, but how we aren’t screaming about this objectively insane movie daily, at regularly scheduled intervals.

congo-tim-curry

Image via Paramount Pictures

For one, describing the plot of Congo makes you sound like someone who popped an unhealthy amount of mushrooms and watched Gorillas in the Mist*. Linney plays scientist Karen Ross, who leads an exposition into the Congo jungle in search of a missing communications tech team that discovered the ruins of a lost city. Joining her is primatologist Peter Elliott (Dylan Walsh) and his gorilla test subject, Amy (voiced by Shayna Fox), who can speak using a sign language interpreter and, as established in the film, cannot fly on airplanes without downing a few cocktails. Amy spends a good portion of the film brutally owning Karen out of personal and professional jealousy, and it rules. Ernie Hudson is along for the ride as mercenary guide Captain Monroe Kelly, as is every ounce of Acting! inside Tim Curry‘s body, playing philanthropist Herkermer Homolka. There is no real reason for the character to have a thick Romanian accent, but by God Tim Curry decided it would, and by God is it a journey.

What occurs between the first and third acts of Congo is mostly notable only for the ways it’s aged horribly in its depiction of Africa as a constantly war-torn hellworld where you step straight off the plane and into a civil war. There is also a moment in which the corrupt Ugandan officer Captain Wanta (Delroy Lindo) screams at Tim Curry not to eat his sesame cake, a soundbite that has played on a loop in my head for the past 25 years. Look, I’m just gonna’ link it here, and will happily pay $1,000 to anyone who could argue Tim Curry didn’t deserve an Oscar nomination simply for the way he mournfully chomps into the forbidden dessert pastry.

But look, what mattered to the audience back in ’95 was the murder gorillas, and Congo doesn’t deliver the murder gorilla goods until about an hour into this 100-minute movie. The gist is that the initial crew went missing thanks to a bloodthirsty tribe of gorillas who had been trained to guard the lost city—and the priceless gems within—but eventually turned on their captors and established a society of their own. I have roughly 10,000 questions about the self-sustaining community of deformed apes beneath an active volcano and Congo answers none of them. Instead, Congo gives you about 20 minutes of man-on-murder-monkey action until, as mentioned, Laura Linney straight up bodies these creatures with a laser gun. Dices them to goddamn bits just for minding their own damn business in the middle of the jungle. The only way I could be any more #TeamMurderGorillas is if one of them turned to the camera and said “gay rights.”

laura-linney-congo

Image via Paramount Pictures

It is, overall, some of the goofiest shit you’ve ever seen in your entire life, but it left such a shallow cultural footprint. Inexplicably, nobody churned out a series of consistently more terrible Congo sequels. The murder gorillas never, like, got to swarm Manhattan. Odder still, if you were alive in 1995, you know that Paramount Pictures did everything to make you see Congo just short of holding a gun to your grandmother’s forehead and forcing you to go see Congo. Based on a book by Michael Crichton and debuting just two short years after Jurassic Park, Congo was very clearly lined up to be a spiritual successor to Steven Spielberg‘s dino-masterpiece. It was gonna’ be the next event film, something you’d have to be some sort of goddamned idiot to miss. That’s not me talking, that’s then-president of Paramount marketing Arthur Cohen, who said at the time “you have to make the American public believe that they’re not good people” if they don’t see Congo. You had failed as a person, you had failed as an American, you were worthless gutter trash if you did not go see this sci-fi gorilla adventure in 1995.

An inarguably ridiculous B-movie with an all-out assault marketing campaign that, in the end, was highly successful at the box office—$150 million on a $50 million budget—and yet it barely punched a dent into pop culture. That’s partly (see: mostly) on the movie itself, which wants so badly to be an epic, effects-driven event like Jurassic Park but forgot that Jurassic Park had a heart at the center of all those animatronics. Director Frank Marshall and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Joe vs. The Volcano) straight cannot get a grip on this film’s tone. It can’t totally settle in as a fun romp because, whoops, there goes Tim Curry getting torn to pieces by jungle beasts. But it can also never approach anything too serious because, and I hope I’ve stressed this point enough, there’s a talking gorilla who sips martinis like a wealthy heiress who looks down on business class.

But all these years later, Congo definitely deserves to be remembered, if not as a “good movie”—I consider Congo “good” in the way I believe Twister should be taught in science class—then as an extremely specific snapshot of a time and place in movie history. No studio in 2020 is plunking down that type of money for a high-concept sci-fi jungle adventure with a gorilla puppet at the top of the call sheet. We just don’t get pure B-movie stupidity on a major studio scale anymore because, quite frankly, nobody’s gonna’ see it. The legacy of something as momentously dumb as Congo is more like a reminder. It’s a relic from a time filled with both wildly ambitious creative swings that modern blockbusters could take a cue from and an undercurrent of insensitivity that, much like a Ugandan militia leader’s sesame cake, is best left untouched.

(*Note: Popping a healthy amount of mushrooms and watching Gorillas in the Mist is a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.) 

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