By Lisa Koosis
Much is said about the perils of the animals catalogued as endangered species, animals that once had free reign upon the earth. Opinions on the subject vary, many voices all struggling to be heard, some offering solutions, some predicting doom for these creatures and their dwindling populations. But throughout, one thought holds steady -- that blame should be placed on Humankind, with its greed and its daily struggle to dominate the planet.
"Congo," Michael Crichton's latest novel turned movie, is about greed, and about venturing into a dark place never meant for civilized man -- the heart of darkest Africa, the Congo. The film takes the classic theme of Man Versus Nature and twists it into the familiar modern variation of Man (with the aid of high tech equipment) Versus Nature.
The story opens on a satellite transmission from the Virunga region of the Congo, where TraviCom, an American communications company, has sent an eight-person field expedition to recover the chemically flawless diamonds purported to be found there. The diamonds would be used in an advanced new laser, a technological leap that would propel TraviCom to the forefront of the industry. The leader of the expedition promises that they have something extraordinary to report, but will re-transmit in an hour. After all, he wants to share the glory with the rest of the team.
But no transmission ever comes, so project supervisor Karen Ross (portrayed by Laura Linney) activates the camera by remote. What she sees is simultaneously baffling and horrifying. The bodies of expedition members are strewn among the wreckage of TraviCom's expensive equipment. As the camera pans across the devastation, something passes in front of it, something too close to be much more than a gray blur, but definitely alive.
Not all team members are accounted for among the carnage, however. Missing is the expedition's leader, who also happens to be Karen's ex-fianc? and the son of TraviCom's CEO. One thing is certain. Another expedition must be organized and sent to the Congo immediately.
Tension builds from the start in "Congo", tension drawn not only from the severed connection between TraviCom and its field party, but also from images of the Congo -- images from the point-of-view of that ill-fated expedition just prior to the massacre. The jungle heat radiates from the screen along with the feeling that something is very wrong there.
At about the same time that the TraviCom expedition meets its end, Peter Elliot's beloved gorilla, Amy, awakens night after night with nightmares. Amy, of course, is not just any gorilla. Armed with a virtual reality glove and lessons in American Sign Language, Amy can talk. She also finger paints, using art to release the emotional tensions of her nightmares into childlike yet recognizable images of the jungle. Together with his assistant Richard (Grant Heslov), Elliot (Dylan Walsh) recognizes the paintings for what they are. Aware of prior studies on the breakdown of mental health of gorillas in captivity, Elliot believes the time has come to return Amy to her home, the Virunga region of the Congo.
One of the reasons that Michael Crichton's science fiction novels make such extraordinary films (other than having a great plot) is their intrinsic plausibility. Take "Jurassic Park" for instance. The concept of dinosaurs once again roaming the earth is initially reminiscent of fifties-style monster movies -- a Godzilla for the nineties -- and equally unbelievable. But Michael Crichton, in his novel, suggests, "What if mosquitoes drew blood from dinosaurs? And what if those mosquitoes were to become preserved in amber? What if we could reach that blood, extract the dinosaur DNA from it, replace any missing strands with amphibian DNA, and make ourselves a dinosaur?" Suddenly it's no longer so implausible. The technology he describes is technology that for the most part exists. Cloning is happening now -- so why not dinosaurs?
In "Congo", we see the same mixture of plausibility and speculation. After all, gorillas have learned sign language. And what about lasers, satellites, and air-conditioned tents? These aren't the products of a vivid imagination. These are the fruits of modern science. It's much easier to suspend disbelief for a movie if there is little to disbelieve.
As expected, the paths of the two Africa-bound parties converge, and with the addition of Herkermer Homolka and Monroe Kelly (Ernie Hudson), the expedition is complete. Homolka, a self-proclaimed Romanian philanthropist, promises funding for Amy's return to the jungle, provided that he can accompany them. Homolka is thoroughly overacted by Tim Curry, and provides a necessary measure of comic relief throughout the course of "Congo."
Homolka and Elliot initially meet at a conference where Amy's communication abilities are being showcased to a rapt audience. Amy's finger paintings are prominently displayed in the background, and Homolka's attention is drawn to them. One in particular -- a painting of the jungle with a peculiar golden eye in the center -- has his attention. The golden eye, Homolka later divulges, is connected to the legendary lost city of Zinj, and its fabulous treasure.
Zinj is breathtaking in its authenticity, from the first glimpse of a large golden eye through the jungle foliage, to the hieroglyph-covered walls ("We are watching you.") and diamond strewn floor of the city. The audience is carried along in the exploration and the horror of Zinj, where the myth of the killer ape is far more than a myth.
Congo does become unnecessary graphic at times. Lasers are powerful weapons and make for wonderful special effects in a film, but this did not need to be demonstrated quite so violently. This movie is not for the weak of stomach, and it's a shame. "Congo" encompassed so much of everything else -- technology, Indiana Jones style adventure, political discontent, an erupting volcano, and the mystique that is so much a part of the African jungle. Nobody would have missed the extra bloodshed.
The bloodshed does serve as a reminder, though. People rely so much on technology -- technology which we wouldn't have dreamed of twenty years ago -- and human resourcefulness has taken a back seat, along with morality. What ever happened to simply: Man Versus Nature? In the frenzy to explore, and more importantly, to dominate every last corner of the world, there are few taboos left. If nature stands in the way, tear it down. So what if we lose a few species of animals and plant life? People need that land.
Nature lies in a delicate balance, and people must learn respect for that balance. Maybe there are places never meant to be viewed through human eyes, nor touched by bulldozers and tainted with chemicals -- places where animals still reign and where nature makes the rules. In the end, isn't that what "Congo" is about? Because isn't it possible that somewhere deep in the heart of the Congo, in an area yet untouched by people and their technology, something secret, something deadly awaits -- something like the lost city of Zinj.