I’ve been binging on low budget movies lately, lots of films by Asylum and the like, and when you start making that your norm, your expectations recenter themselves. Maybe if I’d watched THE DINOSAUR PROJECT after a feast of Jurassic Park, THE DINOSAUR PROJECT would have felt cheesier and emptier than it actually is. And maybe because of all the junk food I have lovingly ingested of late, PROJECT feels smarter and more satisfying, but I’d like to think not. I’d like to think wherever my expectations were going in (and, truth be told, I did watch Tarsem Singh’s lavish, gorgeous Mirror, Mirror last night, which is about as far away from PROJECT as you can get), I’d appreciate this very solid, small budget dinosaur movie.
None of this is to suggest that THE DINOSAUR PROJECT is a perfect movie, but it is a very real attempt to make a good movie and not just slap some affordable CGI on the screen to fight with an affordable lead actor. I appreciate that effort from director and co-writer Sid Bennett.
PROJECT is a found footage film, and I have to say that it doesn’t bring a whole lot to the production. There really isn’t much here that benefits from a shaking camera and weird camera angles, but it doesn’t detract from the movie, either. For me, though, if you’re going to go found footage, and you don’t utilize it in a way that benefits the film, it becomes a negative.
That’s a small complaint, however. The story here is solid – Jonathan Marchant (Richard Dillane) leads an expedition into the Congo to search for the Mokele Mbembe (Africa’s version of the Loch Ness Monster). His son Luke (Matthew Kane) has forced himself onto the expedition and there’s a bit too much overdone child/parent hostility here. It’s understandable hostility, though, so I’ll give the film credit for that. Dad knows it’s not good for son to join him on this mission and I get that; I just wish the film hadn’t made that point over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
On the plane ride to their destination, the expedition’s ride is knocked out of the sky by dino birds. What follows is the standard “things get increasingly worse for our heroes as they simply try to get back to safety” plot. What’s nice, though, is that PROJECT does a really solid job executing that familiar plot, and there’s enough small character moments to win my admiration.
A couple of examples of that last bit: I love when movies give us a small thing that helps us connect to a character. Those moments help show that we’re watching “real” people and not just functional parts in the movie. The sound guy, Pete (Andre Weideman), for instance, is busy jamming his face with food while he should be helping to pack the equipment. Later, after the crash, the expedition has taken up residence in an abandoned hut and one of the characters remarks that all things considered, their situation isn’t that bad because they’ve got food, “largely thanks to Pete.”
There’s a good narrative arc (even though it’s handled clumsily on several occasions) between father and son, as they slowly warm to each other. Being chased by dinosaurs will do that, I suppose.
There’s also a well-executed subplot between Luke and a young dinosaur that pays off in several different ways.
The dino attacks are handled very professionally by crew and cast alike. If you’re tired of found footage films (and I totally understand it, if you are), I can see these scenes not being to your liking, but I enjoyed them. They showed just enough of the monsters for me get a good mental picture of them in my head, which carried me through all the running around and shouting and camera shaking.
There’s some subtle plot twists to keep you on your toes. While the betrayal of the expedition by Jon’s assistant Charlie (Peter Brooke) is obvious, less expected was them offing Liz, the hot, young blonde doctor (Natasha Loring) early on. Even though we’re told Luke is 15, he looks older, and he’s obviously interested in Liz because she’s a hot, young blonde doctor. When she starts sticking up for him, it seems obvious they will spend increasing screen time together, but before their first night in the jungle is completed, she’s eaten by giant bat-reptiles.
Bennett makes a wise choice to alternate sequences between the land and water, which helps to keep tension high (the changing setting adding to the uneasiness in the expedition. As members get knocked off one-by-one, I really began to wish I wasn’t watching a found footage film. I wanted the camera to take a step back now and then so we had a greater sense of the group dynamic and less a sense of what individuals were going through.
I cannot say that everyone should hit play on the Netflix Instant Streaming, but I can say that if you like some combination of dinosaur movies, found footage films, and smartly made low budget movies, THE DINOSAUR PROJECT has a lot going for it. I look forward to seeing what Sid Bennett works on next.