This bio of controversial researcher Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver) gets fancy by gradually blocking her off from us.As Fossey bonds with the African mountain gorillas she's studying, she learns primate social skills and loses human social skills. She becomes a ferocious mother-protector of the gorillas, and also a monomaniac. It's a risky move for a major film, and Sigourney Weaver sets her jaw and lets her voice go flat and hard. She gives an implosive, tense performance.
But to what end? Gorillas in the Mist hammers us with its importance — Maurice Jarre's score hits us like ice water whenever something terrible happens, much like Mike Oldfield's music for The Killing Fields, and this is essentially The Killing Fields with monkeys — and we don't know how to read Fossey's degeneration. Are we meant to applaud her cold devotion to the gorillas? The image of Fossey that we come away with isn't flattering.
Director Michael Apted, whose track record between his Up films has always been a mixed bag, never lets us have a legitimate laugh, so we laugh at inappropriate times, such as when Fossey examines a patch of shit she's just fallen into and solemnly intones "Gorilla spoor," or when a poacher scampers off holding a squalling baby gorilla that's very obviously a puppet. (For the most part, though, Rick Baker's work on the gorillas is exemplary.)
Like The Mosquito Coast, this is a movie for masochists; at both these films, we almost feel that at any moment the cranky Weaver or Harrison Ford will turn to the camera and snarl "What are you looking at?" Weaver's few soft moments would work better if we didn't think to ourselves, "This is one of Fossey's soft moments."In brief, the movie wants to lionize Dian Fossey, and Weaver wants to etch an honest portrait of a driven and not very personable woman. It requires an exquisite balancing act, and Apted isn't up to it.