It’s Time to Remake ‘Congo’

By  · Published on July 9th, 2014

Paramount Pictures

If I was disappointed with Jurassic Park, there was no reason for me to be hopeful about Congo. I didn’t even like the book of the latter as much as I did the dino novel, but I guess I believed it wouldn’t take as much to be faithful to Michael Crichton’s 1980 ape-filled adventure story. To me, at that time in my life, retaining and translating everything from page to screen was important. And given all that was altered in the adaptation for the worse, I would remain in that camp for a few more years.

There are a lot of things that make Congo one of the most awful movies ever made, but the thing that’s always been a clincher for me is the portrayal of Amy the Gorilla. I didn’t really mind that it was a person in a costume, especially since there wasn’t much better in the movies to compare it to then. Computers could create a convincing T. rex, but realistically rendered hairy primates were not yet in the cards for Hollywood in 1995.

Instead, I’m referring to the way they made the ASL-fluent gorilla wear a mechanical glove to translate her signing. Obviously the decision was made to pander to moviegoers so we didn’t have to read subtitles of Amy’s communication with her trainer, Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh). In the context of the story, however, it didn’t make any sense for her to have the prosthetic. It would’ve been an unnecessary expense when Elliot could already understand her just fine, and he was the only person who really needed to.

It was probably an insult to any human ASL speakers in the world, too, and yet likely inconsistent. If Congo had a deaf character, would she need to be equipped with a similar robotic arm? For that matter, would a character who speaks any other language require a computer inside his vocal chords translating everything into English? The device also raised some questions, such as how does it work for two-handed signs when it only covers one arm? (As it turns out, such technology now exists, and it indeed uses two gloves.) And why doesn’t it constantly translate non-signing arm movements into gibberish?

While watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this week, I was reminded of something confirmed by its precursor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes: audiences are just fine with reading subtitles when ape characters are signing to each other. If Congo was made today, it would have to follow in the faith of the PotA franchise and respect Amy’s language, as well as the audience’s literacy. I’d actually love to see that, and so I’m calling on Paramount to add it to the already growing list of remakes of 1990s movies.

As much as I’d want a new adaptation of Congo that is also as serious in tone as the new PotA movies, I’d settle for something a little campy if it works. There is a slight cult following for Congo, and that’s what they’d want, plus Crichton was going for pulp when he wrote the novel. It is, after all, about a lost city in the jungles of Africa where a species of “bad” super-apes guard a surplus of diamonds that are perfect for telecommunications technology.

Besides, it’d be a shame to have a Congo movie without Laura Linney shooting a goofy laser gun at said evil primates. She should definitely return for the remake. And so should Peter Elliott – not to be confused with the character Peter Elliot (who also has to be back, but only if he’s played by someone more interesting than Walsh). Elliott (with two t’s) was Hollywood’s foremost primate choreographer and performer before Andy Serkis came along and took over through his work on Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake and the PotA movies.

In addition to Congo, Elliott’s credits include serious fare such as Gorillas in the Mist and the documentary Project Nim as well as (more often) silly movies like King Kong Lives and Buddy and TV’s The Mighty Boosh. Most recently he choreographed movement in a terrible motion-capture animated Tarzan feature that barely opened in the U.S. a couple months ago. He also got some mo-cap experience playing a character in last year’s Jack the Giant Slayer. He deserves much better after all these years.

Obviously, in addition to honoring the ASL aspect of the story correctly this time, the redo would also need to make Amy and the super-apes computer-generated characters performed through motion capture, and Elliott should be hired for the gig for the latter part of that equation. The lava can still look fake, the accent of whoever takes over Tim Curry’s character can still sound fake and the sets can still appear to be made of cheap foam, but if the animals look authentic, as they do in DotPotA, and there’s no little girl voice coming out of a gorilla’s metal backpack, it’s already going to be a thousand times better than the version released 19 years ago.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.