`Gorillas' avoids some Hollywood pitfalls. Forceful performance by Sigourney Weaver

``Gorillas in the Mist'' is different from most Hollywood movies in a couple of ways. For one, it takes a serious approach to African issues. For another, it pays special attention to environmental questions that have no simple answers - such as the problem of balancing concern for nature with human needs in the third world, including money for housing and food. Still, ``Gorillas in the Mist'' is a Hollywood movie - using the fascinating continent of Africa mainly as a backdrop for white people's activities. Fortunately in this case, the white people are concerned with issues that also matter to Africans themselves.

The heroine is based on Dian Fossey, a real-life conservationist and researcher of animal behavior. She begins the story as an animal lover with a lot of enthusiasm but no training or experience at all. What changes her into a protector of African gorillas is not an abstract interest in nature, but actual contact with the mountains and wildlife of Africa itself. Watching her, audiences can't help being drawn into her life - and her concern for the natural world that some people would rather exploit than understand.

In this challenging role, Sigourney Weaver gives one of her most forceful performances - and she's known for forceful performances in pictures like ``Aliens'' and ``Half Moon Street,'' and even ``Ghostbusters.'' What makes her work more impressive in ``Gorillas in the Mist'' is her willingness to be less than attractive. Miss Fossey grows so attached to gorillas that for a while she resembles them - protecting her turf and snarling at anyone who isn't properly submissive.

Since this is a Hollywood production, Fossey recovers her warm humanity before the poignant end of the story rolls around, and she even finds time for a love affair. The love angle seems halfheartedly tacked onto the rest of the movie, as if it were an afterthought. But other aspects of the film are competently crafted, for the most part. Australian actor Bryan Brown has a likably offbeat quality as Fossey's boyfriend, a photographer for National Geographic magazine. Iain Cuthbertson is just right as Louis Leakey, the great (and evidently crusty) scientist who was her mentor. And there's a deeply felt performance by John Omirah Miluwi, an actor from Kenya, as the heroine's African helper. The movie was filmed by British director Michael Apted on stunning locations in Rwanda.

``Gorillas in the Mist'' wants so much to be a mass-audience entertainment that it doesn't focus consistently on its main business, the need for conserving an endangered species in a troubled African region. But it's refreshing to see a major American film that takes a lively interest in the natural world - and a star like Sigourney Weaver, who makes that interest come alive before our eyes.

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