Thrown out in the years following Jurassic Park, this movie positioned itself as a similar adventure, just this time with killer apes. You can see where it might have worked in a book, but here it comes as a series of barely-connected scenes of peril (Heat-seeking missiles! Killer hippos! Killer apes! Volcano!) that are so overblown and silly it becomes a high-spirited bad movie classic.
This came out after Jurassic Park, when anything by Michael Crichton was considered pretty hot, and it was positioned as some sort of Jurassic Park II, just with killer apes. It turns out to be a giant sprawling mess, but still, kind of fun, if you lower your expectations to zero and are ready to pretty much just go along with anything. It doesn't surprise me in retrospect to find a number of people on the IMDb who say that it's a piece of garbage, but they love it, and watch it whenever it comes on.
This is directed by Frank Marshall, who also directed Arachnophobia, which by chance I watched immediately before watching this. This was one of the first times Laura Linney had a major role, before she found her niche playing more thoughtful characters, and I recall sitting in the theater thinking "Uh, who IS this woman?" We open with scenes of Africa interspersed with shots of an expedition while we have what I call "Bamba-Ye" music, which refers to generic African chant music played during movies, TV shows or Visa commercials to show us what a vital and joyous people Africans are, with white-toothed smiles and filled with folky wisdom and respect for the circle of life. Then--cut to SPACE! This satellite swings into view, and back in Africa Bill Campbell (why, what a pleasant surprise!) calls up his dad Charles and tells him that he found this big diamond which will make this big laser work. Then they find a secret temple, and are attacked by apes. Turns out Campbell auditioned for the lead role of Peter, who we'll meet later, and his few seconds here, and Dylan Walsh as Peter throughout the movie, will make you wish he'd gotten it.
Back at the big corporation run by this Charles, we find Linney as Dr. Karen Ross, ex-fiancée of Campbell. Charles is going to send her into the Congo to get the diamond because "I need a new cash machine! And this diamond--this is it!" They need the diamond to run the laser which has something to do with the satellite.... or something? That's a good example of how everything here is vague and just a tad too complicated. Not to mention that Karen is supposedly so emotionally wrapped up in her EX-fiancée? Guys, you're making a movie, let's REMOVE levels of needless complication, okay? Anyway, Karen is aghast that Charles doesn't give a shit about his own son ("I'll be human later!"), but not so aghast that she wouldn't go on the expedition. She tells Charles that if she suspects for one second that he cares about the diamond more than his own son, she'll make him sorry. Well toots, you can do that right now and skip the trip, because Dad is being MORE than obvious that the diamond is his priority. Still, we must get her to Africa, so she plays dumb for the benefit of the script.
We now join Walsh as Peter, trainer of Amy, the talking ape. Crichton's novels always have one (1) amazing technological/scientific innovation to build a story around, and this time, Amy is it. She has been trained in sign language, and wears a thing on her arms that turns her motions into speech. Amy is played throughout by a woman in a gorilla suit and there is not one second of the movie where you forget that you are watching a person in a gorilla suit. In the audience is Tim Curry as Hormulca--which I suspect I'm spelling incorrectly, but I don't care enough to look it up--who has sniveling villainy in his eye, and his overblown Romanian accent. Now here's a section where you have to conclude in retrospect that they simply didn't have enough footage to edit together into anything coherent: Hormulca has a ring, which shows a yellow eye. Suddenly we have flashes, showing us that symbol in a temple, and then flashes of that symbol in childlike drawings, and soon ascertain that Amy has nightmares about this symbol and obsessively draws it... but how could Hormulca possibly know that?
Anyway, there's an expedition to the jungle for... some reason? And Peter is going to return Amy there for... some reason? He's going to simply release his trained ape that he has worked with for years because... why? I think the theory is that Amy will teach all the other jungle apes human sign language, although anyone who has read a SINGLE National Geographic article knows that this is baloney, and besides, if they want to test it before losing their prized ape, which they have spent millions of dollars and several years on, maybe they should bring a wild ape to her and see what happens. Still, we must get these characters to the jungle, so.... Anyway, Karen shows up on the runway to depart, insisting that SHE must go on Peter's expedition as well. Then Hormulca shows up on the runway to depart, insisting that HE must go on Peter's expedition as well. I have read enough of Crichton's function (and no more) to understand how he likes to bring these different characters with different agendas together, and, like almost everything here, you can see how he might have pulled it off in the book. Unfortunately, our sad little screenwriter Michael Patrick Shanley is simply crushed by the task.
So they land in Africa, where there is political chaos, an assassination right on the runway, and they meet Ernie Hudson as Munro Kelly, a local guide who speaks with an overenunciated European accent. We also have a short cameo by Joe Pantoliano, whom one will soon come to miss, as he would have enlivened the movie. Blah, blah, they leave the plane, travel through roadblocks, meet Delroy Lindo as a psychotic warlord ("EAT my spice cake! STOP EATING my spice cake!," a comic highlight for many), and are soon loaded onto another plane.
Now, the main reason I would have preferred Bill Campbell in the Peter role is that I do not want to bash Bill Campbell's head to a bloody pulp. The same cannot be said of Walsh in the role, who brings a babyish, sullen, passive-aggressive whiny bitch quality to his character, that will make you wish to see him killed on numerous occasions throughout the film. Many of these will come during the next pointless action sequence, where suddenly people on the ground are shooting heat-seeking missiles at the plane. Karen springs into action, kicking open the door of the plane and shooting out flares to divert the missiles, when it is soon decided that they must leap out and take to parachutes. Peter says he doesn't want to! Oh okay, you just stay here then. Then, once landed, he wants to leave everyone else and go off on his own way. And how exactly are you going to manage that, Peter? He's just a whiny, immature little brat that you want to beat, with a sullen, helpless poutiness akin to Ryan O'Neal in the first half of Barry Lyndon. And this is one of our main characters, by the way.
So they're near this mountain, which is of course a volcano, and which is of course gonna blow any second now. Hormulca finally reveals that he believes Amy will lead them to King Solomon's mines, and a ton of diamonds. Then, Zulus! They take the group to Cambpell's assistant from the beginning, still alive, but he freaks and dies upon seeing Amy. Then: Storm! Flash Floods! Deadly snakes! All in the course of 60 seconds. It's an eventful trip. Amy tries speaking sign language to the local gorillas, but is rebuffed, gets depressed. And finally... the lost city of Zinj!
They are attacked by badass gorillas, and have a night at camp where they use lasers and machine guns to fend them off. They enter the temple, where a series of Egyptian-style hieroglyphics inform them that these gorillas were trained as a special diamond-guarding police force, and have apparently been continuing this tradition long after the human inhabitants have died out. That kind of thing happens all the time. They get into this grotto littered with diamonds, but that's also the lair of the badass gorillas, and they're being attacked when--the volcano blows! Karen finds Campbell's body, clutching the giant laser, handily fits a diamond inside, and starts laying waste to the killer gorillas! But not before Amy comes in and repels the attack of several larger male gorillas circling Peter, which seems highly unlikely. They run away as everything is falling apart and lava is flowing, and are miles away down the mountain to safety before you know it!
Karen calls Charles back home, and finds he doesn't care about his son--only the diamonds! She reminds him of her ominous words before leaving, and uses the laser to blow up his satellite! Now folks, I paid good money here, I want to see the satellite explode. But we do hear a distant explosion, rather remarkable acoustics, considering the satellite is in, you know, space. Then Amy leads Peter to show him that she has won the love of a hunky silverback, and is going to stay in the jungle. They have a tearful goodbye, then the survivors hop into a hot-air balloon and float on out of there, Karen dropping the giant diamond out, because riches only lead to corruption. And yes, although every plane that passes through the region is shot down, they'll make it out in their balloon just fine.
You can kind of see how it could have worked. One can tell that the novel was this thing about bringing together a bunch of disparate characters with their own agendas, and having them experience a bunch of tangentially-related adventures, like an old serial, and all in a spirit of fun. In a movie, however, I think one needs to have pared it down and shaped it better, because as it is there's just not enough time to make sense of these characters, and the sheer amount of incident just starts to seem ridiculous. Warlords! Missiles! Storms! Hippo attack! Ape attack! Lost temple! Volcano! There's just too much, and hopping from one to the other so quickly just starts to make it seem the film is just throwing in everything without much overriding sense.
Still, once you get past the fact that this is not going to be a good movie, that very lunacy becomes what's kind if fun about it, and you just sit back and watch all this insanity unfold. Thus, I can see why this movie is a guilty pleasure for so many. It's dumb fun, and it barely slows down for a moment. Is there any reason to watch it? Not really, but if it's on cable you could pass your time in less amusing ways.
Depends on what else you have to do.