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Monday, June 8, 2015

Movie Monthly: The Dinosaur Project

Hello and welcome back to Movie Monthly, it’s week two of Jurassic June and we’re looking at The Dinosaur Project.  The Dinosaur Project is a British found footage film that revolves around an expedition to find the African cryptid Mokele Mbembe.  The Mokele Mbembe is an actual legendary creature that’s rumored to prowl the river ways of the Congo.  Dinosaur Project’s obvious take on things is that the Mokele Mbembe is actually a dinosaur, part of a strange section of the Congo jungle that’s full of prehistoric monsters. 

A lot of the crazy dinosaur action this time around ends up more as setting then actual focus however.  The real focus of The Dinosaur Project is on the team of cryptozoologists that have embarked to find these mysterious beasts, specifically it’s on the interconnection between the stoic veteran leader Johnathan, his young son with daddy issues Luke, and his resentful partner Charlie who’s tired of taking a back seat to Jonathan’s accomplishments. 
Don’t misconstrue those descriptions as any kind of spoilers for what happens in the film, that’s exactly how all of these characters are introduced.  In that respect The Dinosaur Project wears its heart very much on its sleeve, to say nothing of the Jurassic Park inspiration.  Unlike Carnosaur, which was produced too earlier to be part of the Jurassic Park craze, The Dinosaur Project is a 2012 film and you can see a lot of major influences though they spring more from character arc and interaction than concept.  Luke’s strained relationship with his absent father Johnathan is at the heart of the film’s dramatic interests and it painfully parallels Dr. Grant’s arc from Jurassic Park as well as Ian Malcolm’s from The Lost World.  Additionally a lot of the character set-up and situations parallel the opening to Jurassic Park III.  None of this is to say that The Dinosaur Project is a bad film, a derivative film yes but it’s hard to hold that against it.  Even now, 22 years later, Jurassic Park looms largest in the dinosaur genre so it’s easy to accept that pretty much all modern dinosaur films are going to be made in its shadow, that’s just the nature of the game at this point. 

Where The Dinosaur Project does fall down, however, is in the use of its found footage gimmick.  Now this is an area where I tend to differ from most people but I actually really like found footage movies, specifically found footage horror movies.  I understand why most folks don’t like found footage, it’s a gimmick, a way to excuse cheap effects and cheap thrills.  It’s also a somewhat oversaturated genre, especially in the way of ghost and haunted house films; which already flood the horror scene.  What I like about found footage is that the low production cost and acceptably sub-part effects make it a great genre for experimenting with unconventional horror concepts.  Monsters that would be laughed out of most horror circles like Big Foot or Kaiju can find real purchase in the genre.  Now The Dinosaur Project is not a found footage horror film, it simply incorporates a lot of the tropes of that genre, where it actually resides is in the far lamer genre of found footage action/adventure/scifi.  This is the genre that gave us God-awful installments like Chronicle.  This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker but it is a big problem for The Dinosaur Project because it never quite manages to reconcile the two conflicting genres. 
During early scenes upon reaching the land that time forgot things are played more in the vein of horror, with the dinosaurs kept in dark shadows, striking at the heroes with lethal accuracy before melting back into the night.  As the film goes on however, the dinosaurs enter more into the light and actually befriend our heroes the menace really goes out of the creatures.  This is where The Dinosaur Project makes its biggest blunder, falling back on river rapids, exploring, and betrayal to drive the film’s adventure rather than the dinosaurs.  There’s an extended sequence of the cast stopping and interacting with dinosaurs on a small island that almost marks the dinos’ departure from the film.  They show up again a couple of times later on but for the most part they aren’t the primary antagonists. 

It’s a real shame because even though the CGI isn’t amazing it’s actually pretty persuasive and better than you’d expect.  Additionally the actors all turn in solid performances, nothing mind blowing but no one ever comes off as flat or apathetic.  Honestly the biggest issue here is just that found footage is not the genre for high stakes adventure.  This has to do with why we find adventure thrilling versus the emotions that the claustrophobic found footage aesthetic actually evokes.  Adventure sequences like the T-rex chase from Jurassic Park or any number of Indiana Jones moments are thrilling and exciting because we aren’t experiencing them first hand, we know the basics of a situation but our mind is free to imagine the actual sensations of it.  With found footage we’ve been forced into the first person perspective, everything is given to us so our mind doesn’t have to do any work and that ease makes us disengage.  There’s no room for us to craft a personal connection to the action, it’s all right there in front of us.
Don’t be too put off by my words, I wouldn’t be showcasing The Dinosaur Project if I thought it was a terrible movie.  What The Dinosaur Project is, is a decent movie, an enjoyable way to spend 80 minutes and I’d actually recommend it if you have older kids that are still big into dinosaurs.   We’ll probably come back to the found footage genre plenty of times in the future but for next week we’ll be taking look at much bigger film for a change. 

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