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THE NAKED APE

If the star of your summer fantasy/adventure movie happens to be a gorilla--or rather, a gorilla suit with a tiny actress stuffed inside--you naturally get a little stingy with the rest of the casting. That's what the makers of Congo have done. The bogus primate is called Amy, and she walks, talks (with the aid of a voicebox supposedly coded to her sign language) and smokes cigars. Dylan Walsh (primate scientist), Laura Linney (tough ex-CIA gal), Ernie Hudson (suave African guide) and Tim Curry (exotic Romanian profiteer)--not exactly boffo box-office names--are the Homo sapiens principals here, stuck with one another on the same expedition to central Africa. You're no more likely to remember them two weeks from now than the movie itself.

In fact, this is not moviemaking at all, but market research. In the wake of Jurassic Park and its attendant dinosaur craze, the great minds at Paramount have taken an old chunk of Michael Crichton nonsense about apes (it dates back to 1981) and, with no apparent effort, turned it into bargain-basement Indiana Jones. The frantic action is gaudily decorated with laser-ray gadgetry, random hippopotamus attacks and a papier-mache cave full of gray killer apes that, in the end, get cooked alive in the eruption of a suspiciously convenient volcano.

Otherwise in this part of Africa, you don't get through customs until you pay the local president a couple of million dollars American. Leeches attach themselves to the hero's ding-dong (this is the movie's comic pinnacle) as he sleeps. A political coup is also under way, complete with machine guns, trips to the police station and heat-seeking missiles. And, as if all that weren't enough, there's a greedy race to find King Solomon's mines and his ancient cache of diamonds. Guess who knows the way? The monkey, of course.

Whew! Director Frank Marshall stacks up crises--there are also plenty of snakes, falling boulders and hazardous airplane flights--like so many boxes of cereal competing for the consumer's eye in a supermarket. But he's so overloaded the shelves that before long, you don't feel like buying anything.

Amy the gorilla is meant to hook the kids, of course. She's cute and charming and, in light of her extensive educational program in the States, probably a better novelist than Michael Crichton. So when scientist Walsh sets her free back home in Africa (the original purpose of his trip), scattered oohs and aahs can be heard in the theater.

If only they'd left the rest of this shapeless, highly artificial dreck on some other continent, the rest of us could be happy, too.

 
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