Monkey Business

The latest adaptation of a Michael Crichton bestseller is about as realistic, and almost as entertaining, as that other one -- what was it? -- oh yeah, Jurassic Park. The new Crichton is also about something being preserved from a far past, only this time the item being preserved is the tone of the movie, and the past isn't prehistoric, but rather pre-self-conscious filmmaking. Congo is simply a rip-roaring adventure that's a lot of fun. And if that's not enough for you, well, too bad. And good for the filmmakers.

Congo is set in an Africa that has nothing to do with AIDS, apartheid or other TV images of Africa. Congo is a wild thriller set in the birthplace of man, the Dark Continent -- the romantic Africa of matinee movies. A boy scientist, his pet ape, a lady doctor and their great white hunter guide slash their way through jungles, leap over white-hot molten lava and battle hippos -- on their way to a lost city! And they have a ray gun! A ray gun with a beam of light that cuts ferocious jungle beasts in half, burns through solid rock and blasts satellites out of the sky!

To be fair, while Congo is simply as fun as jungle movies and Buck Rogers, it is not as simply told. We have better toys now, so the expedition travels through the jungle with portable air conditioners instead of pith helmets. Too, we have more knowledge of Africa's internal power struggles, so the expedition encounters more interesting political situations. Congo exploits these new developments, but only in the interest of increasing the picture's "Wow!" factor. Other updates include a great white hunter who, as he says, just happens to be black.

Before the African adventure begins, we meet our heroes in the U.S., where one -- Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney), the ray gun-toting lady scientist -- is introduced as a Ph.D. in some C.I.A.-ish telecommunications field. She works for TraviCom, a company in quest of chemically flawless type IIb industrial diamonds, which it needs to construct a laser system that will let TraviCom rule the field of satellite communications (and maybe more). From a secret, high-security sanctuary in Houston, Ross and her boss man, R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker), watch a video feed from deep in the Congo, where a TraviCom team has gone in quest of said diamonds. The team is led by Travis' son, and the feed they're watching shows some very ugly pictures before blipping out for good. Presumably, something awful has happened. So Ross is sent out to discover just what that something was. (And to get the diamonds, which Travis, played in perfect villainous style by Baker, seems to relish a lot more than the safety of his son.)

That leads us to our second hero, boy scientist Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), a primatologist with a pet ape named Amy who can say 620 words in American Sign Language. Amy is also an artist, and plasters the walls of her trailer with symbolic, albeit smeary, finger paintings. She does this before showing off her language skills for an auditorium of scholars, skeptics and one suspicious character.

The filmmakers, who have so far done well with suspense and spookiness, now push the sentiment buttons, showing Amy's charming, animatronic squint and having her furry arms give Elliot mechanical hugs. (No gorillas were injured during the making of this film because, as far as I could tell, no actual animals were used.) For Amy's big show, the filmmakers eschew ordinary sentiment and go for pure D sappy. To demonstrate the "data glove" -- a mitt that translates movement into sound -- Elliot shows his audience a videotape of a man, "born without the organs of speech." As the man signs in ASL, the gesture-recognizing glove turns his movements into words. In a burbling electronic voice he says, "This is the first time I've heard my own speech."

The scene set for cuteness, enter Amy. The brown beast comes bounding on-stage wearing her data glove. She, of course, tells the assembled multitude that "Amy good gorilla" and "Amy love Peter." "This is not," as one academic says, "Mr. Ed." When Amy's limited vocabulary is exhausted, Elliot shows slides of her paintings -- paintings that seem to mean a great deal to the suspicious character lurking amongst the intellectuals.

At this point we're barely a quarter into Congo, and there's a lot going on. TraviCom and Ross are busy with preparations for their insanely expensive expedition, Amy is having nightmares -- which Elliot has decided means she wants to go home to Africa -- and the suspicious character from the auditorium -- who turns out to be Herkermer Homolka (Tim Curry), allegedly a Rumanian philanthropist but actually a plain weasel -- is looking for a way to get to King Solomon's diamond mines in the lost city of Zinj. A lost city that happens to be near where TraviCom is seeking its diamonds, and a city to which, the oily Rumanian is convinced, Amy can lead the way. (Her painted symbols are, he feels, a sign of that.) It all sounds terribly confusing, but it isn't; the filmmakers have kept the plot lines clean and perfectly paced for munching Milk Duds and popcorn.

Everyone, of course, gathers together in a plane to head across the Atlantic, and as soon as our adventurers arrive in Africa they run into a coup. With giant fireballs! To get them through this and on toward the diamonds (or the lost city, or Amy's apes), their guide, the great white hunter who happens to be black, Monroe Kelly (Ernie Hudson), coolly commandeers a military truck and they all go bouncing away into the jungle. It's a heck of a ride.

One could, if one wished, consider what all this intrigue has to do with the Pearl Thesis (the question of what happens when talking animals act as interpreters between our species and theirs), or reflect upon the arms race. But why? If that's your idea of entertainment, buy magazines with tiny print; those magazines are made for such things. Congo is a summer movie, made for other purposes and the adventure in Africa is everything it should be.

Congo is not just a boy-and-his-gorilla movie, not a mere girl-and-her-laser flick. There's a name for movies like this one, and that name is Call Me Bwana. Take the kids, take a date, take a giant bag of buttered popcorn and indulge yourself with this finely crafted, completely escapist fantasy.

Directed by Frank Marshall. With Dylan Walsh, Laura Linney, Ernie Hudson and Tim Curry.

Rated PG-13.
102 minutes.

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