Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle didn’t invent the Lost World pulp sub-genre, but his 1912 novel gave it its name. And it’s interesting to note that, almost a century later, the notion of ancient beasts lurking in lost valleys still holds such a sway on our modern, jaded imaginations. We may be clutching our phones, pods and pads, but deep down, there’s a little bit of our brain that still enjoys the notion of dinosaurs skulking about in a far away land.
The Dinosaur Project is essentially The Lost World for the handycam age. As its name implies, it’s a family-friendly collision of The Blair Witch Project and Jurassic Park; a found-footage dive into unexplored elephantine reptile country.
The film introduces Jonathan Marchand (Richard Dillane), a member of the British Cryptozoological Society and intrepid explorer. We can tell he’s an intrepid explorer because he disguises himself as Sam Neill circa 1993, right down to his rather natty wide-brimmed fedora. With the assistance of some cameramen, his producer partner, a medic and a couple of other secondary characters, Jon embarks on an expedition to the Congo, where he hopes to find evidence of the Mokele Mbembe, a legendary water beast which may or may not be a surviving dinosaur.
We then meet Luke (Matt Kane), Jon’s wayward teenage son who happens to be something of a tech Jedi. Having been expelled from his school for posting on YouTube candid footage of his headmaster clad in lingerie, Jon’s forced to take Luke to the Congo for the duration of his two week expedition, but plans to him in a hotel room while he goes off dinosaur hunting.
Needless to say, a young man as restless and obsessed with filming things as Luke won’t stay cooped up for very long, and he stows away in the expedition’s helicopter as it heads off into a part of the world presumably yet to be mapped by Google.
“This is Africa’s Loch Ness monster” Luke’s father says of the prehistoric monster he’s hoping to catch on film, “but much more plausible”. Personally, I’d beg to differ, but no matter: right on cue, things go wrong, and a somewhat diminished party finds itself crashed in the jungle with little hope of rescue. And somewhere in the foliage, something glowers hungrily.
The Dinosaur Project plays fast and loose with the conventions of its nominal found footage genre. Everything’s surprisingly well framed for a film supposedly shot on the fly – which in some ways isn’t a bad thing, since it allows the film to side-step the juddering camerawork normally associated with the genre, and director Sid Bennett (who also co-wrote the script with Jay Basu) ably captures the heat and claustophobia of the jungle.
It has to be said, though, that even at a sinewy 80 minutes, The Dinosaur Project plods. That none of the characters are particularly engaging to watch or listen to is part of the problem; a wayward teenager with a fractious paternal relationship is a well-worn device, and it’s not enough to win over our sympathies on its own. Secondary characters fare no better; there’s a flatulent, bearded cameraman who likes Dinosaur Top Trumps, and a young female medic who takes a shine to Luke, and that’s about all the film has time for.
Had The Dinosaur Project built up an air of tension worthy of Jurassic Park, or even an sense of goofy charm, as seen in 1975’s The Land That Time Forgot or a billion other B-movies, a lack of characterisation could have been glossed over, too. But in spite of some decent computer-generated creature effects, the potentially scary set-pieces are too derivative and familiar to be effective, and the movie as a whole is cut to a rhythm that dissipates rather than builds tension.
There are some decent ideas in here somewhere, including a novel use of a miniature camera, and a brief moment in a boat which is quite unsettling. What a shame, then, that so much of a movie about the potentially thrilling discovery of a modern-day Lost World should be so lacking in genuine wonder or excitement.
“It’s like the Loch Ness monster, but more plausible.” Nope, still not convinced.
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