Though making a number of divergences from the source novel, Congo does, at least, feel like an attempt to engage with Michael Crichton and his ideas. Chiefly, its central arc involves a collision between science, geopolitics, business and the natural world, framed as a rip-roaring serial adventure. Steve Guttenberg-lookalike Dylan Walsh plays a dorky primatologist, whose compassionate mission to return his gorilla prodigy to her homeland is hijacked; first, by a Romanian fortune hunter (Tim Curry) posed unconvincingly as a philanthropist, then by a telecom geek (Laura Linney) looking for a missing lover and the diamonds to power her boss’ latest tech toy. They’re joined by a relentlessly glib mercenary (Ernie Hudson) and his comrades, navigating a civil war and then the jungle on their way to an ancient mining city straight out of colonialist pulp–complete with killer gorillas for guards.
John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay is serviceable, sprinkling in asides about capitalist plundering and wildlife exploitation. Walsh and Linney, however, are lost, their characters given jarring personality/intelligence shifts and a series of heart-to-hearts which seem to steer them towards a studio-mandated romance. Walsh seems far more interested in Amy the gorilla, however: their dynamic is filled with so much shorthand and routine even casual observers note a resemblance to marriage (and to think people didn’t get hot and bothered until Peter Jackson’s King Kong, a decade later!). His teaching her to sign (and, through a Power Glove accessory with a grating voice feature, talk) features the film’s most Crichtonian moments, but they’re left as a sideshow distraction on the way to King Solomon’s Mines.
Dramatic leads firmly in the passenger seat, Congo functions best as a procession of solid bit actors collecting a paycheck. Besides the always game Hudson and Curry, there’s Bruce Campbell, Joe Don Baker, Mary Ellen Trainor, Joe Pantoliano, and (memorably) Delroy Lindo as a military officer extorting the expedition.
This would be fine if direction wasn’t so shoddy. Frank Marshall, more known as a producer for Steven Spielberg, shoots scenery as flat as possible, minimal camera movement and unremarkable staging his signatures. Threats human and animal roll along, lacking even the visceral thrill of a fairground ride (editing further de-emphasizes impact, cutting away from or blacking out violence). Combined with the remarkably stain-free costumes and actors, the impression is something of an antithesis to Predator: zero desperation, zero tension, zero excitement.