Review first published S&S Sept 2012
Synopsis: Present day, the Congo. Sightings of a plesiosaur-like creature draw renowned cryptozoologist Jonathan and an expeditionary team comprising his long-time assistant Charlie, team medic Liz, television crew Dave and Pete, local conservationist Amara, and helicopter pilot Etienne. Jonathan’s technology-savvy son Luke stows away, with multiple minicams in hand. When their helicopter is downed by giant flying creatures and Etienne killed, the survivors spend the night in a nearby abandoned village. Attacked by giant prehistoric bats, Liz is overcome and the rest escape in rowboats. They encounter three young dinosaurs, one of which, nicknamed ‘Crypto’, Luke befriends. Attaching a camera to Crypto, Luke and Charlie monitor its path through a river cave, and then down a hole. As the party heads down river, Charlie and Luke’s boat becomes separated and they are pulled through the cave into a deep-water ravine. When the others catch up, Dave starts filming a plesiosaur, only to be devoured by a pliosaur. Separated from the others, Charlie leads Luke to the hole and pushes him down, hoping to kill everyone so that he alone can take credit for discovering this prehistoric world. Luke survives, and is rejoined by Jonathan and Pete just as more bats attack. As Pete goes after the bats “for Dave”, Jonathan is driven over a cliff by the insane Charlie. About to kill Luke, Charlie is devoured by Crypto’s huge parents. Luke sends a backpack filled with the cameras’ hard drives down river (where they are picked up by boatmen), and heads into the valley where his father fell. The film ends with Luke and a second blurry figure visible on the satellite phone that Luke had been repairing.
Review: The digital era is also the new age of the dinosaur. After Steven Spielberg got the ball rolling with Jurassic Park (1993), Peter Jackson brought photoreal CG dinosaurs stampeding across his 2005 King Kong remake, showcasing just how far the technology had advanced since Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 stop-motion original. Britain has focused on televisual dinosaurs, with VFX-heavy programmes like Walking With Dinosaurs (1999) and Primeval (2007-11), but now Sid Barrett, the director of ITV’s Prehistoric Park (2006), has joined forces with Jellyfish Pictures, the effects house behind BBC’s Planet Dinosaur (2011), to create The Dinosaur Project.
Certainly this feature combines all the expected visual digi-verisimilitude and familiar narrative motifs (portals, lost worlds, predatory peril) of its predecessors, but it avoids merely following in their giant footprints by presenting itself as ‘found footage’, purportedly recorded by a party of explorers lost in the Jurassic jungle while searching for a gigantic Congolese cryptid. The faux reportage that seemed so fresh and innovative in The Blair Witch Project (1999) – to which this film’s title clearly alludes – may since have approached extinction as a convincing and effective medium for horror, but it makes sense in the context of a cryptozoological expedition, both because it matches the blurry handheld footage commonly associated with the likes of Bigfoot and Nessie, and because the characters are well motivated to keep the cameras running in the face of danger. Still, this being a largely good-natured family film, the cameras are turned discreetly aside whenever atavistic monsters (including pterodactyls, a pliosaur and some terrifying prehistoric bats) kill anyone, and there is plenty of humour and knowing corniness to offset the heightened realism of the intradiegetic camerawork. Somehow, just knowing that one of the characters has brought a set of Dinosaur Trump Cards reduces these creatures, for all their hulking immediacy, to a collector’s vivid playthings.
These dinosaurs form the symbolic backdrop to a drama played out between father and son. Where celebrated cryptozoologist Jonathan Marchant (Richard Dillane) is a throwback to the sort of oldworld, authoritarian adventurers featured in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 serial novel The Lost World, his estranged 15-year-old son Luke (Matt Kane), with his technological nous, his online savvy, and his rebellious spirit, is very much a figure of progress. So it is only natural that these two diametrically opposed characters – the fossil and the future – should at last be reconciled in a place where prehistory meets present day. So, like Jurassic Park, Night at the Museum (2006) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) before it, The Dinosaur Project sets the generational divide in a world of enduring dinosaurs – only, in this old-fashioned boy’s own adventure (with a modern digicam twist), the creatures are the big stars, even taking over the filming itself at one point, while the altogether less distinctively ‘rendered’ live-action characters remain in their shadow.