B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
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 animals.
(2) Motion-sensor machine guns that keep out numerous attacking creatures.
(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 species list.
(Answers to matching game: 1-d, 2-b, 3-a, 4-e, 5-c.)
Congo is playing at Century Park (620-0750), Century Gateway (792-9000) and De Anza (745-2240) cinemas.
Cutline: Heart of Schlockness: Primatologist Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh) navigates gorilla Amy through Michael Chrichton's latest sci-fi jungle journey, Congo.
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