Frank Marshall is more known as a producer than a director. After all, he was in that role for movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, The Color Purple, Back to the Future and so many more films, but he didn’t direct until 1990’s Arachnophobia. He also helmed Alive and Eight Below, as well as this film. Again — he’s much better known as a producer, as he’s since executive produced the Jason Bourne and Jurassic Park films.
Speaking of Jurassic Park, a Michael Crichton novel also inspired this film, which had a long history before it finally played cinemas.
After the success of The First Great Train Robbery, Crichton wanted to write a movie for Sean Connery, as the character of Charles Munro, who he saw as an analog to Allan Quatermain. Ironically, that’s the character that Connery would play in his final screen role in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Crichton pitched the idea to producer Frank Yablans — the same guy who brought us The Fury, Mommie Dearest and Kidco — who liked the idea so much that he — without Crichton’s authorization thank you very much — sold the film rights to Twentieth Century Fox in 1979, a year before the book was published.
Once Crichton learned that he could not use a real gorilla to portray the character of Amy, he left the project. The film was offered to Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter before years later, Marshall came on board. That all came to pass because, during the making of Jurassic Park, Crichton was impressed with Stan Winston’s work. Producer Kathleen Kennedy suggested that Winston could make the apes for Congo, talked to her husband — yep, Frank Marshall — about the project and Yablans came back on board again.
However, the final film is only loosely based on the Crichton script, with John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) taking over the writing duties.
While testing a communications laser in the Congo, TraviCom employees Charles Travis (Bruce Campbell!) and Jeffrey Weems discover the ruins of a lost city. However, it looks like everyone dies as the company watches the exploration via satellite by Karen Ross (Laura Linney), a former CIA operative and also the former fiancee of Travis, whose dad R.B. (Joe Don Baker!) owns the company. Man, talk about run-on sentences.
There’s also primatologist Peter Elliott (Dylan Walsh), who has a mountain gorilla named Amy, who can speak via a special glove that translates sign language to audio. She’s been drawing jungles and intricate gems, which means that Peter thinks she should go back home to Africa. He funds that trip via Karen and TraviCom, as well as Romanian philanthropist Herkermer Homolka (Tim Curry).
They’re led by the greatest hunter of all time, Captain Monroe Kelly. You know what they always say: if you can’t get Sean Connery, get Ernie Hudson. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje — Killer Kroc from Suicide Squad — shows up as Munro’s second-in-command Kahega. And hey — there’s Joe Pantoliano as another merc! And John Hawkes (Eastbound & Down) is also here, as well as Delroy Lindo and Kevin Grevioux from the Underworld movies.
Between native tribes, gorillas being used to guard diamond mines and Tim Curry getting killed by a pack of those gorillas — not to mention a subplot that has Dr. Elliot upset when Amy ends up getting rawdogged (rawaped?) by a silverback and leaving humanity for the jungle, this movie literally looks like studio notes on film. There’s everything for somebody, I guess. Curry and Hudson are having a blast, however. Hudson is almost in a totally different movie than anyone else and has called out Congo as the best time he ever had making a movie. It shows.
1990’s kids had Kenner on hand to help them recreate the story of the Lost City of Zinj with Congo action figures. You could grab Peter, Karen, Kahega, Peter and Amy for the good guys — well, I guess protagonists, maybe, but who wants to tell kids that they are protagonists versus good guys? And then for the apes, you have Blastface, Mangler, Zinj Apes and the deluxe Bonecrusher. There were also two vehicles, the Net Trap and Trail Hacker. They fit into the Kenner aesthetic, just like their RoboCop and Jurassic Park figures. Seriously, Kenner made figures for every movie it seemed like — they made Waterworld figures, after all!
Speaking of Jurassic Park, my feeling on this movie has been that everyone wanted to will another series of films much like Crichton’s novel into existence. This whole thing was vaporware, based on a story that the author never really finished made by people who didn’t have any real concern with the source material, which never really existed in the first place. Millions were dumped into it and it actually did pretty well — $152 million worldwide on a $50 million budget — but no one really remembers it.
All they do remember is that there was a scene where one of the Zinj gorillas uses a laser. That scene doesn’t exist in the movie, but that hasn’t stopped people from remembering it in a Mandela Effect moment.