Twenty Years Hence: Congo

Ahem…A scientist (Dylan Walsh) with a monkey he has taught to speak via a machine needs to return his money back to Africa and teams u inadvertently with a corporate electronics executive (Laura Linney) who also has to go to Africa in hopes of finding her ex-fiance who may have been killed there by a pack of genetically mutated or hyper-learned gorillas. And Tim Curry wants to go to Africa to from some vaguely mysterious reason, and he helps you fund your trip.

Now this, my friends, is a genuine Grade-A Bad Movie plot, and the makers of Congo do their damnedest to earn every second of it. It’s terrible, sure, but in a deliriously magnetically idiotic sort of way, down from the inklings of whispy, broad thought introducing the film to a producer’s mind (something like: Michael Crichton wrote this, lets get to work!) up to the trickles of specific camera gestures and the unbridled moronic drunken stupor of the special effects tickling their way toward the film’s fingertips. Trapped in 1995, everything about the film straddles the line between the unrepentant ’90s cynicism that would form the backbone of late ’90s and 2000s blockbusters and the loopier variety of early ’90s blockbusters toeing the matinee thrills of the atomic ’50s and the heftier brawn of ’80s blockbusters themselves owing almost everything to the teenage mumbo jumbo of the hokum sci-fi of the 1950s. It dares us to see what fever-induced nonsense will pop into its mind next.

I mean good gracious, it’s a heated version of Jurassic Park starring, presumably because it couldn’t manufacture eight copies of Jeff Goldblum on the spur of the moment: Bruce Campbell, Ernie Hudson, Joe Don Baker, Tim Curry in full-on girth-signifying-greed mustache-twirling Soviet mode. Dylan Walsh and Laura Linney are there too, just to remind you that it’s 1995. At some point, someone says

I’m not a pint of sugar, I’m a primatologist” in their best Deforest Kelly grumble and it is, to my amazement, not Bruce Campbell on either end of the conversation. This is the kind of movie we’re being treated to: Bruce Campbell is merely third or fourth at best in terms of memorable matinee chewing. It is also a film that features Ernie Hudson, an African-American actor, as a “Great White Hunter” and makes a rather big fuss about it. As to whether the film thinks this is evidence for its off-the-cuff, wry comic wit or its hard-hitting commentary on the nature of race in the ’90s (how a successful black man is seen as “white” rather than black by the whites around him), I cannot say, but I’m willing to suppose the film really wants us to say “both”.

Elsewhere, the lows (highs) of the film are multitudinous. The exposition is without comparison, making damn sure we understand absolutely every single little detail of the leaden plod of storytelling surfeit we really couldn’t bother to care about in the first place. And then to understand it again. And again. And, incidentally, to realize the sheer ineptitude of the film’s conception of everything from science to geography to human nature. The ’90s meets ’50s tension unfolds most directly in its conception of race, veering wildly between pseudopod political correctness and cringe-inducing retro stereotyping (kind of like the ’90s in general in that regard …) in a way that makes absolutely no sense from scene to scene. The film’s depiction of African nationalism and the current state of affairs in what it is clear to remind us again and again is the third world is tangential at best, but the way it is used as a object of tension to fill up the time when nothing else can create suspense deserves some sort of award for simultaneously eschewing race at every turn and using and abusing the sheer idea of it for whatever needs the film drums up in the moment.

It’s not quite the Heart of Darkness routine we expect, but when early ’30s matinee cinema is only so far away, the idea of “savages” has to come up somewhere. I suppose its vision of African tribes is less openly despicable than one might expect, but the number of jokes that seem to poke fun at the idea that African soldiers are aware of Western pop culture constantly begs to differ. As does the way the film uses Hudson, given a positive role, as a cop-out solution to its vehement disregard for the black bodies of the soldiers he commands.

Of course, the “we both know this, lets discuss it for twenty minutes” dialogue and the utilitarian racism is only the beginning. This doesn’t yet explain the curious amalgamation of vague, insipid political intrigue because it’s the ’90s, lasers because it’s the ’90s, faux-Jurassic Park because it’s the ’90s, and, naturally, random sky diving because extreme sports and the ’90s and something or other. The film shoots haphazardly between tones and moods, its only constant being the out-of-time pure-bananas eye-catcher that is Amy, the animatronic gorilla who is some sort of hallucinogenic misfire envisioned from another timeline where films didn’t strive to make money or be liked at all. Something is simply wrong with this animatronic, which constantly seems desperately in need of something to cover its perverse malformation of special effects and human nature. I’m a categorical fan of meat-and-potatoes practical effects over CGI, but Amy is a mockery.

At some level, it sort of seems excusable in the “it’s supposed to be an old matinee film from the ’30s and its bad special effects are supposed to comment on the poorly qualities of those films”, but that seems 1. dishonest and 2. unearned considering the film’s complete failure to attempt satire in any sense of the word outside of this. It’s far too sincere to try to mock, no matter what it ends up doing against its will. Speaking of sincerity, the film gallantly dances between completely not giving a shit about anything serious and indulging in some of the ripest 90s faux-humanism manipulation (whenever Amy appears on screen and she shares a moment with Peter, her scientist friend) you could possibly imagine, and the clashing of tones has to be seen to be believed.

Yet, for all its flaws, and probably because of them, the finished product is a hoot, indulgently bad in a way that feels primed and ready to lose itself to its own silliness rather than because of its tepid desire to actually succeed in a box office competition. It has a certain Dino De Laurentis vibe, a sense that it saw Jurassic Park and just desperately fell in love with the idea of aping it to make money without any real idea of what actually made Jurassic Park a monetary success in the first place. It has that wide-eyed William Castle quality, the sort of fluffy, bushy-tailed sense that no matter how many films follow the Jurassic Park formula, this one will be a success no matter what. It’s a bad film, a relentlessly bad film, but it’s just so determined and vigorous with its badness it’s hard to dismiss. If nothing else, there’s always Hudson, having the time of his life with material he clearly understands as matinee thrills bullshit, and clearly loves taking part in with a slick ultra- confidence sonically and visually assuring us that all will be okay in the end. He has the idea right, and the whole rest of the film has everything so stunningly wrong, and the two together are magnetic.

Score: Just about the best 3/10 you can possibly imagine

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