Occupational therapist Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver) is inspired by the anthropologist Louis Leakey (Iain Cuthbertson) to devote her life to the study of primates. To this end, she writes ceaselessly to him for a job cataloguing and studying the rare mountain gorillas of Africa. With some effort, she manages to convince Leakey of her conviction and devotion to the cause at hand after personally approaching him following a lecture in Louisville, Kentucky, on his part in 1966. Thereafter, Fossey embarks into the Congo, where Leakey and his foundation equip her with the necessary equipment and housing to achieve personal contact with the gorillas, and introduce her to a local animal tracker, Sembagare (John Omirah Miluwi), to assist her in her endeavors. Settling deep in the jungle, Fossey and Sembagare manage to locate a troop of gorillas, but they are ultimately displaced by the events of the Congo Crisis after being forcibly evicted from their research site by Congolese soldiers, who accuse Fossey of being a foreign spy and agitator.
Initially, Fossey sees no other option but to leave the continent and return to the United States. However, after Sembagare and her temporary host Rosamond Carr (Julie Harris) motivate her to stay, she decides to base her research efforts in the jungles of neighboring Rwanda, which Dian presumes will be safe from outside incursions. However, what Fossey fails to foresee are the rampant problems of poaching and corruption taking place therein, which become apparent when she discovers several traps in the vicinity of her new base at Karisoke. Nevertheless, Fossey and her colleagues make several key headways with the gorillas, taking account of the gorilla's communication and social groups. In so doing, her work impresses Leakey and gains broader international attention.
National Geographic, which funds her efforts, takes an increasingly marked interest in her work and dispatches photographer Bob Campbell (Bryan Brown) to highlight her research. Fossey, initially unreceptive towards the outsider Campbell, grows increasingly attached to him after several photo sessions with the gorillas, and the two eventually become lovers, in spite of Campbell's marriage. Campbell proposes to divorce his wife and marry her but insists that she would have to spend time away from Karisoke and her gorillas, leading her to call off the tryst and ending their relationship. During this time, Fossey also becomes close to a gorilla named Digit, forming an emotional bond with him, and attempts to prevent the export of other gorillas by the trader Van Vecten (Constantin Alexandrov).
Increasingly appalled by the poaching of the gorillas for their skins, hands and heads, Fossey complains to the Rwandan government, which dismisses her by claiming that poaching is the only means by which some of the Rwandan natives can themselves survive. However, a government minister (Waigwa Wachira) promises to equip her with a three-man anti-poaching squad and pay for their salaries. Ultimately, Fossey's frustration reaches a climax when Digit is killed and beheaded by poachers, leading her to ever-more extreme actions to save the gorillas from illegal poaching and likely extinction. To this end, she forms and leads numerous anti-poaching patrols, burning down the poachers' villages and even staging a mock execution of one of the offenders, serving to alienate some of her research assistants and gaining her various enemies. Sembagare expresses concern at her open opposition to the emergent industry of gorilla tourism, but Fossey nonchalantly dismisses his worries by stating that she already has an extended travel visa and increasing financial support for her research. However, on December 27, 1985, Dian Fossey is brutally murdered in the bedroom of her cabin by an unseen assailant. Thereafter, at a funeral attended by Sembagare, Carr and others, she is buried in the same cemetery where Digit and other gorillas had been laid to rest. Afterwards, Sembagare symbolically links the graves of Fossey and Digit with stones as a sign that their souls rest in peace together.
A pre-credits sequence indicates her actions to help save the gorillas paid off greatly and the species was saved from extinction as a result. According to the ending, Dian Fossey's death remains a mystery.
The screenplay was adapted by Anna Hamilton Phelan from articles by Alex Shoumatoff and Harold T. P. Hayes and a story by Phelan and Tab Murphy. The original music score was composed by Maurice Jarre. The movie was directed by Michael Apted and the cinematography was by John Seale.Peggy Lee – "September in the Rain" (Written by Harry Warren & Al Dubin)
Peggy Lee – "It's a Good Day" (Written by Peggy Lee & Dave Barbour)
Peggy Lee – "Sugar" (Written by Maceo Pinkard & Sidney D. Mitchell & Edna Alexander)
The film received generally positive reviews from critics, with many praising both Weaver's performance and the technical accomplishments of the movie while some were frustrated by the lack of depth in Fossey's on-screen characterization.
"At last, [Weaver] may have found a part cut to her scale." wrote Hal Hinson of The Washington Post. "It's a great role for her to pour herself into, and she doesn't skimp."
However he had his misgivings about the restrictions placed on Fossey's character: "The chief problem with Gorillas in the Mist is that it banalizes its heroine; it turns her into one of us. And by all accounts Fossey was anything but ordinary." He also accused the filmmakers of toning down Fossey's unstable mental state: "Fossey was more than merely eccentric...The movie hints at these aspects of her character but tries to soften them;...the filmmakers have done more than sanitize Fossey's life, they've deprived it of any meaning."
Hinson concluded that "Gorillas in the Mist isn't a terrible film, but it is a frustrating one."
While Roger Ebert was also happy with the casting of Weaver as Fossey ("It is impossible to imagine a more appropriate choice for the role"), he felt the character was too distanced from the audience and that her development and motives were unclear. "Gorillas in the Mist tells us what Dian Fossey accomplished and what happened to her, but it doesn't tell us who she was, and at the end that's what we want to know."
However, Ebert was impressed by the scenes with the gorillas and the way live footage of gorillas was seamlessly blended with gorilla costumes: "Everything looked equally real to me, and the delicacy with which director Michael Apted developed the relationships between woman and beast was deeply absorbing. There were moments when I felt a touch of awe. Those moments, which are genuine, make the movie worth seeing."
Hinson also agreed that "whenever the cameras turn on the gorillas — who are the film's true stars — you feel you're witnessing something truly great."
The film holds an 82% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes based on 17 critics' reviews, with an average review of 6.8/10.US gross domestic takings: US$24,720,479
Other international takings: $36,429,000
Gross worldwide takings: $61,149,479
Gorillas in the Mist was nominated for 5 Oscars at the 61st Academy Awards in 1988 (ultimately winning none):
The film won two awards at the 46th Golden Globe Awards in 1989: Maurice Jarre for Best Original Score and Sigourney Weaver for Best Actress. The film was nominated for Best Film.
The film won a Genesis Award for Best Feature Film.
2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Dian Fossey – Nominated Hero
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: