During the 1970s, Michael Crichton made his debut as a film director and during that time was responsible for two great science-fiction films The Andromeda Strain (1971) based on his novel, Westworld (1973) and one halfway good one The Terminal Man (1974). His directorial career petered out in the 1980s amid mediocre, half-fulfilled ideas Looker (1981), Runaway (1984). Michael Crichtons technological alarmism was particularly suited to the 1970s brand of antiseptically-white, techno-triumphant dystopia, but he soon appeared to be stuck on a single track alarmist note, something that eventually ran out after cinematic science-fiction became far more upbeat in tone regarding technology following Star Wars (1977). Then however came the amazing success of Jurassic Park (1993), adapted from Crichtons book, and suddenly Michael Crichton was a best-seller and box-office gold again. Although he never took up the directors chair again, his books inspired a spate of successful A-budget adaptations Rising Sun (1993), Disclosure (1994), Congo here, the original screenplay Twister (1996), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Sphere (1998), The 13th Warrior (1999), Timeline (2003) and the tv mini-series remake of The Andromeda Strain (2008), with Crichton also having created the medical tv drama ER (1996-2009).
With Congo, originally written in 1980, Crichton said that his challenge was to write a modern version of H. Rider Haggards classic adventure tale King Solomons Mines (1885) and update the old lost world formula. The lost world story was always an exotic romance born of the late Victorian era, rooted both in the great Age of Exploration and in a fascination with the prehistoric past that the then-new sciences of evolution and palaentology were opening up to the Victorians. The genres appeal was limited to the time the world began to be geographically closed off ie. the point when exploration of the jungle regions and the Poles lost their mystery, revealing a lack of plateaus containing dinosaurs or hollow Earths to be found there. Science Fiction cinema kept the lost world theme going until the 1950s after which the genre fairly much dried up. There were odd throwbacks in the 1970s such as Amicuss Edgar Rice Burroughs trilogy begun with The Land That Time Forgot (1974) and Disneys The Island at the Top of the World (1974) but these were notably period pieces, set in the past to evoke the romance of the Victorian Age of Exploration. Congo interestingly blends the cliches of the genre lost cities, mysterious native tribes, unknown animal species, the search for King Solomons Mines, the exploding volcano climax and updates them with modern interpolations Central African political instability, modern primate anthropology and an eco-conscious attitude toward vanishing species, along with cutting edge technology.
Congo was the third film directed by Frank Marshall. Frank Marshall is better known as Steve Spielbergs Executive Producer, having worked on every Spielberg-associated production from Poltergeist (1982) onwards throughout the 1980s and most of the 90s. Frank Marshalls two previous films as director, Arachnophobia (1990) and Alive (1993), were slick but forgettable A-budget pieces. Congo is three-quarters of a good film. I say three-quarters because this is the length of time that Congo spends on the journey to the lost city. This is genuinely exciting and cannot be faulted. Once at the lost city however, Congo almost appears at a loss for what to do and falls back on genre cliches. Despite an impeccably Green attitude towards its primates throughout frequent mention of how their aggression is a cinematic myth, the prominent featuring of posters listing the population of remaining gorillas in the world the film all too eagerly throws that away for a climax that features the cast fighting off aggressive gorillas and apparently all in favour of endangering the species. The climax also suffers from many of the usual problems of the lost world film. Lost world films only operate as exotic armchair safaris. Once at their locations they are largely confined to tourism, dramatically limited to providing thrills and spills, maybe a touch of romance with a fur bikini-clad girl, but not a great deal more. The reason most lost world stories cap everything off with a volcanic explosion an appalling cliche rehashed here is possibly their lack of anywhere else to take the story.
The story in Congo suffers from many loose ends. Interesting character possibilities are raised Laura Linney is first introduced as a professor of communications engineering but as she progresses we get interesting hints about a CIA background and she appears amazingly proficient with hi-tech weaponry yet none of this is explained and the character remains irritatingly vague. Similarly with Tim Currys philanthropist, much is hinted at in the way of an unscrupulous background he may not even be a rich philanthropist as his temporary cashflow crisis at the airport seems to suggest but nothing ever comes of this, although he still gets the type of deservous death (while scrabbling for wealth) that the greedy usually do in these films.
Congo is well served by a good cast. Laura Linney made her screen debut here, before a few years later going onto roles in Primal Fear (1996), The Truman Show (1998), Mystic River (2003), Kinsey (2004) and becoming a strong indie film actress and receiving several major award nominations, including three Academy Award nominations. Her tough and capable heroine is refreshing. There is also a fine performance from Ernie Hudson, who creates the sort of worldwise, sharp humoured adventurer that one could easily imagine going on to star in his own series of films. The only weak performances in the deck are Tim Currys one-dimensional Homolka and Dylan Walsh, later the star of tvs Nip/Tuck (2003-10). One is not sure if Walshs performance has been intended so deliberately in order to highlight the strong womans role, but he is played as a wimpy wet blanket the whole way through.
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Ernie Hudson) and Best Makeup Effects at this sites Best of 1995 Awards).