The Expedition (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

Over the passing decade or so, ‘found footage’ has, much like the post-Romero, post-9/11 zombie, earned itself something of a bad rep amongst horror fans just through sheer bloody overexposure. Unlike the zombie, however, it is less a subject than a medium for horror – a useful, highly flexible tool of restricted, intradiegetic perspective that enables the filmmaker to tell a story from the inside, while reflecting upon the motives and methods of the film’s own making. Of course, like any tool, it can be deployed with great deftness and dexterity, or it can be tossed about to no good effect by cinema’s equivalent of the cowboy builder, for whom the cutting of costs can justify any amount of shoddy, shaky work. And while, ever since The Blair Witch Project popularised the format back in 1999, ‘found footage’ has been gradually evolving in narrative sophistication, every so often we get a throwback like Adam Spinks’ The Expedition to return us to its primitive prehistory.

“The adventure has barely begun,” declares Professor John Howson (Ben Lloyd–Holmes, also the co-writer) just under halfway through this film, and he is not wrong. For you can feel yourself counting the minutes as the titular expedition, unfolding deep in the Amazonian rain forest of Wales, meanders this way and that with very little by way of narrative interest apart from occasional roars and bellows in the distance, or something unseen rummaging through the campsite. Filling the event vacuum is character drama – except that the South African explorers, English scientists and film crew, and local guides who all pass for characters are a motley crew of unengaging stereotypes (he-man has long, tied-up hair, boffin has glasses, etc.). Normally with found footage, a delicate balance must be struck between crazy genre developments and the kind of banality that, coupled with handheld camerawork, creates the illusion of realism. Here however, for an intolerably long time there seems to be nothing but banality – a situation not helped by the perfunctoriness of the dialogue, and the total lack of anything happening.

Eventually all those noises off resolve themselves into a lost world of aggressive, predatory dinosaurs – which, like buses, are not seen at all for the longest time, and then all seem to come at once, despite the fact that our explorers never stray far from their one camp. As though to formalise the sudden shift in genre, Howson announces, “There is no more adventure here, this is nothing but survival” (some 70 minutes in), and from this point on nature walk turns into jungle run. Yet somehow the dinosaurs here, unlike in the similar ‘found footage’ of The Dinosaur Project (2012), are mostly glimpsed askance and never seem all that spectacular. In the climactic sequence, as a speeding vehicle is chased and rammed, the offending behemoth can barely be seen at all. Viewers willing to put this incompetent camerawork down to characterisation and ‘reality effect’ may well then ask themselves how realistic is the coincidence that the world’s ‘go-to guy’ on cryptozoology should not only be leading a moss-collecting ecological expedition, but also be leading it into a territory that just happens to preserve ‘hidden’ dinosaurs.

Minor spoiler: in the end The Expedition is not ‘found footage’ in the strictest sense, since some characters survive to bring their video recordings back. “As I’m sure you all know, we didn’t have much time to get a lot of evidence,” says one of the survivors in a closing press conference. “In order to do that, we have to go back.” This sounds like both a self-conscious apology for The Expedition‘s obvious shortcomings, and a pitch for a sequel – but on the strength of this outing, it would need a very reckless investor to back a second expedition.

Anton Bitel