AFTER VIEWING Congo, the latest movie based on a
Michael Crichton novel, I have a new theory about how the best-selling
author comes up with his stories: Crichton pastes articles from
Omni, Scientific American and National Geographic
to the wall, lays out a half- dozen darts, and hires an ape to
throw the darts at the wall. Then he pulls down the punctured
articles and starts dreaming up ways to combine the concepts.
This certainly explains the melding of chaos theory, dinosaur
behavior and genetic-engineering ethics for Jurassic Park. But
it's even more successful at explaining the haphazard combo platter
of high-tech satellite communications, superconducting diamonds
and intelligent apes in his latest picture. Unlike Jurassic Park,
these elements are never brought together in any engaging way,
making Congo little more than a dim reminder of the tastier concoction
we were served two summers ago.
Like its profitable predecessor, Congo is constructed
as a high-tech jungle journey into unknown territory. The story
begins with a group of corporate scientists camped in the heart
of the African jungle, searching for an enclave of diamonds they
hope will aid in laser research. The scientists die suddenly while
their colleagues are watching over a satellite TV link, and a
new expedition is put together, this time with the aid of a former
CIA operative (Laura Linney, a red-tag version of Laura Dern),
a Romanian explorer (Tim Curry, with a schlocky, spit-churning
accent) and a scholarly primatologist (Dylan Walsh, looking confused).
Plenty of guns and gadgets are brought along for protection.
The stage has been set for another Jurassic Park-style
ride, but there's something missing. Although Jurassic Park's
story was relatively shallow, at least it always gave us something
to keep us going. The characters were watchable (especially Jeff
Goldblum's irreverent mathematician), the effects were intense
and the scientific ideas gave us something interesting to ponder
between raptor attacks.
The Congo ride, directed by Frank Marshall (Alive)
and produced by long-time Steven Spielberg collaborator Kathleen
Kennedy, has far less to offer. The characters are stereotyped
to the point of irritation, there's barely any conflict or sexual
tension, and nobody really talks about anything other than what's
going on at the moment. They just react, while the sturdy, confident
South African guide (Ernie Hudson, with a schlocky, eyebrow-furrowing
accent) explains each stop as if they were riding the tour bus
at the San Diego Zoo.
After an exciting escape from a plane that has been targeted
by guerrillas armed with heat-seeking missiles, the tour itself
becomes customary. For example, while rafting, the group is attacked
by rabid hippos as if they were on a Universal Studios ride.
Let's play a matching game and see if you can match other elements
from Congo with elements contained in recent films and
shows. Ready? Begin.
(1) An ancient vine-covered city full of treasures and dangerous
(2) Motion-sensor machine guns that keep out numerous attacking
(3) Hieroglyphics that carry an important secret message.
(4) A useless character who exists solely so he can die.
(5) A scene where a character is humorously traumatized by a
leech on his penis. Match with:
(c) Stand By Me
(d) The Jungle Book (1994)
(e) any old Star Trek episode
Answers will be provided at the end of this review.
Worst of all, the movie foists upon us a cute baby ape named
Amy, who wears gear that deciphers her sign language and spits
it out in a cutesy voice. Throughout the movie, she says things
like, "Amy--pretty," or "Gorillas--bad" over
and over while shaking her right arm. Amy serves the same purpose
that cute robots served in early-'80s science fiction flicks:
to provide canned comic relief and make the audience go, "Awwwww...."
To be fair, Congo does score points for a couple of original,
funny touches. While resting on some rocks, the homesick primatologist
begins softly singing "California Dreaming," and the
hired porters--who have up to now been ignored by the picture--all
join in. It's a sweet moment. Congo also contains a sly
early scene in which we briefly see a character playing the home-computer
game Doom, running around blowing away ape- men. Leave it to a
Michael Crichton movie to find a way to use video games as foreshadowing.
That a video game could so aptly describe a movie's plot underscores
what a kid-oriented film Congo is. The bottom line is that
like Stargate, the picture is cheap, noisy fun for the
under-12 crowd, who won't be likely to complain about having seen
it all before. There are laser beams "that can punch a hole
in the moon," an exploding volcano, morphing lava and ugly
gorillas that look like the Abominable Snowman in that stop-motion-animated
Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer Christmas special--so who's complaining?
Adults, however, will probably have a reaction closer to Amy
the baby ape, and walk out of the theater saying, "Movie--bad,
movie--bad," while shaking their right arms.
As for Michael Crichton? Just put his movies on the endangered
(Answers to matching game: 1-d, 2-b, 3-a, 4-e, 5-c.)
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