Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we find a world in which humans have become the endangered species, and super-intelligent apes threaten to wipe the last of our species out of existence. Wait, "super-intelligent apes"? "You are the endangered species?" Sometimes, you make the choice, and sometimes the choice makes you. Hat tip to Z.V. for making this most excellent suggestion.

In 1993, Steven Spielberg directed a movie about CGI dinosaurs, called Jurassic Park. It was an exceptionally beguiling piece of matinee-movie magic, and the film industry being what it is, absolutely everyone wanted a piece of the same action. And so the rip-offs and copycats started to show up. Among the first and easily the most direct of these was 1995's Congo, which, like Jurassic Park, is based on a novel by Michael Crichton; was produced by Spielberg's reliable collaborator Kathleen Kennedy; was directed by Spielberg's other long-time producer buddy Frank Marshall; boasted creatures designed by the great Stan Winston; and starred an actress named Laura whose later career would prove her to be indescribably overqualified to play the role of a brassy scientist spouting inscrutable babble and reacting to special effects. Heck, Congo and Jurassic Park are basically the same movie! Except for the part where Jurassic Park is a bright, finely-tuned adventure combining the best of the old school and new technology, while Congo is like, the worst fucking thing.

And by "the worst fucking thing", I obviously mean "the best fucking thing". You'd be hard-pressed to come up with a movie that ticks more of the boxes for a perfect storm of So Bad It's Goddamn Perfect filmmaking in the last decade when such movies were still reasonably common: it has a big enough budget and ambition to make the failure of execution that much more impressive; it has a flawless blend of actors ranging from completely inert leads to supporting players who are obviously in on the joke, and it counts a conspicuous skeleton in at least one closet; the dialogue includes some absolute howlers of lines that are down around Ed Wood levels of unreadable weirdness; the effects are outrageously shitty in ways that only very expensive movies with very creative talent can manage to produce. It is a precious and rare jewel: most fun-bad movies are fun if you can get a few friends together to snark and probably drink your way through it, but Congo is absolutely hilarious even if you're watching it alone. Prior to this review, I hadn't watched it since it first came out on video, which isn't a mistake I'll make again, for it is magical. Of the small but personally resonant '90s subgenre "people fighting some kind of horrorbeasts in the jungle, and also a veteran actor is playing the bad guy with an indescribably unhinged accent", I find that I must rate Congo as my second-favorite behind only Anaconda, owing almost entirely to the fact that Jon Voight's performance in the latter film is literally my favorite thing in any bad movie from the entirety of the decade.

Congo, anyway, hinges on two hot new technological developments of the 1980s, when Crichton wrote the novel (which isn't all that great, but its incomparably superior to the film): laser-based communication and computers that translate sign language into speech. The latter of these has been attached to Amy, a gorilla trained by UC Berkeley primatologist Dr. Peter Elliott (Dylan Walsh), who has concluded based on her recent nightmares that Amy just wants to go home to the jungles of the Congo region (the movie came out before the Democratic Republic of the Congo had been so renamed from Zaire, but the film really takes place in Darkest Africa rather than any actual ecosystem or political entity you could identify on a map). This makes him invaluable to Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney), a communications scientist at TraviCom with her own need to get to the Congo, where she expects to find her possibly dead ex-fiancé Charles Travis (a cameoing Bruce Cambpell), and Charle's father, TraviCom C.E.O. R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker), expects to find rare blue diamonds, the key incredient in his new space lasers. Hoping to piggyback on Peter's trip and save herself the hassle, or something - there is in fact no clear reason that the two expeditions need to combine, especially since TraviCom sends another one a few days later - Karen manages to buy her way onto the plane with the promise of paying for the tens of thousands of dollars in gas, once Peter's original backer, eccentric Romanian Herkermer Homolka (Tim Curry), turns out to be a broke diamond hunter and not the industrialist he promised.

In Africa, the rag-tag crew meets up with suave mercenary Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson, sporting a ripe British accent), and they head into the jungle, all H. Rider Haggard like. Civil war, mysterious natives, and cryptic clues to the doomed fate of the original TraviCom expedition all mark the path to the Lost City of Zinj, where the Bibilical King Solomon had all of his diamonds mined (aaallllll H. Rider Haggard like, I said), in the exact part of the jungle that Amy came from, and where Charles was attacked by what is revealed to be a race of stuntmen in the most fucking amazingly stupid White Gorilla costumes that the Stan Winston Studio at the height of its affluence could manage to perpetrate.

The plot is just about the best thing about Congo: it's hokey and stupid and probably racist (though it's amazing how much just the casting of Hudson - the most self-aware member of the cast, having even more obvious fun than Curry - manages to sand the nastiest edges off of the whole "Africa and Africans are weird, creepy, horrible, and exotic" implications of the scenario), but it makes for a giddy enough rip-off of King Solomon's Mines that presses all of the necessary B-movie buttons. Take the exact same script (by the distractingly overqualified John Patrick Shanley, plainly just grinding through as many clichés as he could hit on the way to cashing a paycheck), make it for a tenth of the same budget, and it's a right little classic of junk food cinema. And also, you could spend a tenth of the inconceivable $50 million - in 1995 dollars! - that was wasted on Congo and make something that didn't look appreciably more fake or down-rent. Congo, in addition to its utterly misguided gorillas, boasts some of the rinky-dinkiest jungle sets that you could ever hope to see, cutting together with the Costa Rican locations not at all. It's really just plain impossible to figure out where the money went: not on the cast, surely, which included nobody more prominent than Tim Curry, one of those actors who's kind of defined by how obviously inexpensive he is (the film beat the Dylan Walsh Era in pop culture by... well, let's see, it came out 19 years ago, so it beat that moment by at least 20 years). Hopefully not on the costumes, which are really fussy and really dumb - Amy, of whom we see a great deal, looks like a highly expressive and well-detailed version of an animal that roughly approximates the idea of a gorilla, as heard third- or fourth-hand. (The film was going to be done with CGI, till it was discovered - perhaps after about $20 million? - that hair-rendering programs weren't up to the task of CGI gorillas at that time).

My point, anyway, is that Congo is a junkshop movie in every respect other than the one where it somehow as an A-list, tentpole release in June of '95. I mean, look at that cast list again: Curry, Hudson, Campbell (who originally tried out for the role of Peter, and would have made a genuine B-classic out of it if he'd gotten the part - Walsh is a pathetic wet sock in the part), and Joe Don Baker as the shoutiest billionaire head of a multinational communications technology firm in cinema history. "I'll be human later!" he bellows at Linney in one scene, puffy and rampaging like no Evil Capitalist ever puffed or raged. It's Shakepeare the way it was meant to be played, and bless her, but for all that Linney actually seems to be trying to act in most of the movie (unlike Laura Dern in Jurassic Park, this was her first real showcase, and she was clearly determined to make the most of it), she is visibly confused about how to respond to any of what Baker gives her.

For all that Congo is a festively dim romp through set-bound jungles, with Hudson and Curry both rocking their accents hard, the movie didn't become a punching bag of such longevity because it plays like a moderately enjoyable adventure flick; it's because of the awesomely terrible spectacle of Amy the Talking Gorilla, played by Lorene Noh and Misty Rosas in the suit, both of them indescribably good sports (you can tell in every beat of body language and in the tortured approximation of ape-like movement that mostly resembles a game parent playing horsey for their children), with child actress Shayna Fox providing the gorilla's digital voice. Half-assed but amusing King Solomon's Mines variants are ten for a dollar: in any given 24-hour period, at least a half dozen are probably playing somewhere on cable. But movies of any genre that boast such a remarkably misguided character as Amy are rare and precious as the blue diamonds to power laser guns. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see that thing on set and realise exactly what kind of movie this was going to be: the kind with the most asshole, smug-looking face of any robot ape in the history or robot apes, and the most amazing lines of bad dialogue in a film where amazingly bad dialogue happens about once every thirty seconds. "AMY WANT GREEN DROP DRINK" says the gorilla, in demanding an in-flight martini - this is a movie in which a gorilla drinks a martini, and if you really need anything else to get you excited, I don't understand how you made it this far into the review - which she then drinks with a look of solipsistic contentment. "TICKLE ME TICKLE ME TICKLE ME" she demands of Peter with droning angry intensity, till Peter tickles her. Because this is also a movie in which the relationship between a man and a talking gorilla is pretty much unambiguously presented as a domestic partnership, leaving Laura Linney with nothing but a presumed-dead Bruce Campbell, though I think most of us would still pick that over a living Dylan Walsh.

All this is compounded by Marshall's directing, which is full of of mistakes and deeply unfortunate choices that tend to play up the "scary Africa!" elements of the film; the example that presents itself most obviously comes when Delroy Lindo's brutish Captain Wanda (who angrily makes people eat sesame cakes, and then even more angrily makes them stop) is filmed with just enough of a wide angle lens at just a near enough distance to make him look all terrifying and insane. Or the deeply unfortunate choices that are unfortunate for completely apolitical reasons, like having the white gorillas' attack on the heroes take place amidst blue lasers and purple smoke, as though just for one scene, they had to film Congo in a dance club from 1986. Allen Daviau, a talented cinematographer if ever there was a talented cinematographer in Hollywood in the '80s, rather stubbornly shoots around the terrible camera placement, terrible blocking, and terrible sets as though he was making a real movie, but even talent can only go so far in making things look attractive despite themselves.

It's all so truly special: all the money and resources a film could ever hope to receive somehow going wrong in every possible way, to create the platonic ideal of a glossy but chintzy pile of idiotic nonsense. It has the kind of truly glitzy tackiness that only money, time, and talented could have produced, with a script of the most pure, uncut inanity at every point, so much so that when the heroes escape on a balloon that just happens to be kicking around in the desert on their way to fly, probably, right into a war zone, it hardly even registers as a contrivance. Congo is an outlandish, incompetent disaster, but it seems so conspicuously aware of how terrible it is, and how it just keeps getting worse, that it ends up being a great deal more fun than many far, far better adventure movies with a more discipline but nowhere near as much magnetic derangement.