Primate suspect

Congo is the missing link between storytelling and special effects

Think about the most wildly popular fantasy adventures of the past couple of years--everything from Jurassic Park to the spastic Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask--and it's a given that what you'll remember are single images: the tyrannosaurus rex bumping its nose against the clear plexiglass roof of a jeep where two children cower or Jim Carrey pulling a Jimmy Cagney filtered through Tex Avery as he draws down on the hoodlums who want what he's got.

These are memorable moments from the American commercial cinema of the '90s, but they float inside gooey, homogenized motion pictures that, in turn, feed into a vast river of disconnected bright spots from other lackluster, expensive Hollywood productions. Critics who've long decried the blockbuster mentality among big-studio American movies are getting even less sympathy from the ticket-buying public than they used to, because spectacular innovations in computer image technology have fulfilled the philosophy championed, ironically enough, by avant-garde filmmakers from Anger to Godard: Film is foremost a visual medium. Tell people something, and they forget; show them and, if they love what they see, they'll pay to see it again.

With this in mind, it becomes harder to champion the narrative possibilities of film, to remind folks how much more engrossing a movie can be when the writer, the director, the actors, the camera people, and the editors are all working in synch, building each sequence with enough skill and audience-pleasing care to honor what the special effects team has created.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the new Michael Crichton thriller Congo is that it's smudged with too many fingerprints. This modest but suspenseful adventure tale has all the trappings of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel--mythological primates, hidden diamonds, ruthless hunters, even a volcano with indigestion--and makes the mistake of employing top-flight makeup wizard Stan Winston and George Lucas' cutting-edge Industrial Light and Magic to recreate them.

Simply put, there's no creature, no world, and no catastrophe in Congo that we haven't seen before in documentary footage. The filmmakers seem to hope that the spirit of these familiar imaginative conventions will be enough to pull you in. The pieces are reconstructed with such earnestness that the movie absorbs you once the story gets going.

The first half of Congo takes more time pulling us into the central African jungles than it should, detailing the comic book personal missions of Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), a tenderfoot primatologist who wants to return an extremely affectionate gorilla named Amy to her natural habitat, and Karen Ross (Laura Linney), a communications expert who goes after her ex-fiance once he disappears while hunting down a diamond mine for a hugely powerful satellite corporation.

The pair work their way towards the base of a mountain with a debonair bush guide (Ernie Hudson) and a craven Romanian treasure-seeker (Tim Curry, who sports once of the most enthusiastically shlocky Unidentified European Accents heard in a while), where an ancient temple houses an undiscovered race of...well, you'll find out.

Inside the misty lair, director Frank Marshall makes nice use of jump-cuts, shadows, sudden noises, and other nerve-gnawing techniques. The biggest hurdle moviegoers are likely to face can be solved with a single question before you hit the box office--can I be intrigued by talented physical mimics dressed in ape suits? If the answer is no, then move on. Make no mistake--Stan Winston and his team have created the most subtly expressive, believable ape suits you've ever seen in a movie. Particularly impressive is Walsh's primate sidekick Amy, who's in practically every scene and authentic enough not to require dim lights or quick cutaways to reinforce her presence. But when all is said and done, she's still an actor--or, rather, several different actors in different scenes--in a gorilla costume.

Paramount, the studio behind Congo, appears to be hoping that the film will approximate Jurassic Park in earnings. The ubiquitous TV ads hammer away at us, "From Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park...", and the film is helmed by Spielberg cohort Marshall. They'd better not hold their breaths. A digitally created dinosaur is much more exciting to behold than a state-of-the-art monkey suit. The film works well as a big-budget homage to Saturday matinee serials, which is why its imminent failure at the box office is both predictable and a little sad. Congo relies so much on the audience's willingness to enjoy this African adventure for its own sake, it feels terminally old-fashioned.

Congo. Paramount. Dylan Walsh, Laura Linney, Ernie Hudson. Written by John Patrick Shanley, based on the novel by Michael Crichton. Directed by Frank Marshall. Now showing.

 
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