By Aki Hubbard (Florida, USA)
Dinosaurs are no stranger to cinema. Millions of years after their destruction at the end of the Cretaceous, a slew of films combined with decades of imagination and special effects keeps these super-lizards alive and well even into the present day.
Resetting the standard bar for a quality dinosaur flick was Steven Spielberg’s 1993 thriller, Jurassic Park. Based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, it went beyond the premises of time travel and lands that time forgot by using DNA as a means to revive dinosaurs from the dead.
Since then a number of movies have borrowed from this tactic, notably Roger Corman’s Carnosaur and more recently, The Dinosaur Experiment.
Initially released under the title Raptor Ranch on the SyFy Channel about five years back, The Dinosaur Experiment is a rather fun and campy past-meets-present-in-the-middle-of- nowhere romp. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and for this reason, the absence of scientific explanation in lieu of cutting to the chase works very well here. It’s very similar to Carnosaur but in several ways, I feel it is superior in its overall execution.
The story deals with…wait for it…dinosaurs on the loose (big surprise). They’re actually the product of a senile old rancher’s experiments with evolutionary ties between dinosaurs and birds. Conveniently enough, the setting for this story is a Texas small-town with a bunch of stereotypical gun-toting hicks and no police force whatsoever. At the heart of our tale is Abilene “Abbi” Whitecloud (played by singer/songwriter Jana Mashonee in her acting debut) , a Native American resident who works as a waitress while hoping to save enough to move out and pursue her dreams of becoming a singer. Her mother goes missing one night (you do the math on that one), and six months later, she’s left alone to deal with their misogynistic boss (Cole Brown).
Entering town at just the wrong time are a trio of college buddies, including the meek and introverted Sheldon (Cody Vaughan), typical frat-boy Lucas (Donny Boaz) and hairy, aptly-named Man-Beast (Rowdy Arroyo); and struggling band consisting of a has-been funk singer (Marcus Mauldin) and his backups, ditzy blonde Josie (Kimberly Matula)and goofy Goth-girl Kolin (Alexandra “Lexy” Hulme). Needless to say, no sooner have our characters begun to get acquainted to one another than the cow manure starts hitting every fan possible. A trip to the secluded ranch in search of fuel leads to the dinosaurs getting loose and next thing you know, we’re dealing with a rising body count.
Almost forgot to mention the pair of FBI agents who are also in town. It seems that they’re on assignment investigating a rash of animal maulings that locals say are the work of “mutant emus” that our aforementioned rancher was raising. Forgive my lapse in memory, it could be that these two guys do next to nothing during the entire movie (well the combined 30 or so minutes that we see them anyway). Perhaps I should mention that one of them is played by Lorenzo Lamas.
Useless authority figures aside, the storyline is actually nice and streamlined. It isn’t hampered by useless connections and relationships between characters that typically slow things down in movies like this. Sure there is one raunchy sex scene, but even that gets cut short to usher in the impending chaos.
The dinosaurs themselves are rather realistic as both low-budget CGI and animatronics go. It helps that they were modeled by Billings, Incorporated (formerly Dinamation), the same people who create animatronic dinosaurs for zoos, museums, and theme parks worldwide. Stock dinosaurs include the Velociraptor and T-rex, while the more rarely featured Megalosaurus gets a nice debut. Dubbed “Big Beth”, the Meg is 8 tons of blue beastly bee-otchiness. Why blue, you ask? Hey I don’t know, but at least she wasn’t purple and green, right?
Par for the course, a good portion of the characters are pretty disposable, not because of their acting (which was spot on in my opinion), but because the plot pretty demands it. Bear in mind, this was conceived as a fast-paced sci-fi/horror feature, not a suspense/thriller. The sooner you eliminate unnecessary baggage, the more you can focus on the individuals who really carry the story. And those individuals turn out to be Abbi, Sheldon and Kolin.
Abbi, as mentioned before, is a young woman with high hopes. Unfortunately, she’s got to get out this little dust speck to make those happen and since her mom disappears before paying off the truck she bought from Abbi’s boss, that could take a while. Abbi nonetheless is determined to tough it out. Unlike other sympathetic heroines, she doesn’t cry helpless over her fate; she relies on her inner strength and gives as good as she gets. And it is this trait (well, this and her skilled prowess as an archer) that serve her well when she finds herself having to evade animals that shouldn’t even exist anymore.
Sheldon is more of a privileged everyman character. He starts out thinking he’s going to have a good time with his buddies (even that’s grudging as he points out he’d rather stay on campus and study). Next thing you know, he’s out of gas in the middle of nowhere. His initial interactions with Abbi are anything but friendly, as Abbi’s tough, almost drill-sergeant nature collides with his sheltered, pampered softness. Then he’s running for his life from dinosaurs every five minutes. By the film’s climax, he’s covered in blood (not his own) and has had to watch several people be devoured or sundered in front of him. When you see him, standing there, sobbing and pathetically breaking down, you can’t really help but extend your heartfelt sympathy to him.
And then there’s Kolin. Initially she seems to be just another “disposable” destined to be a dino-chew toy, but as the story gets fleshed out, we see more of her character emerge and it’s not the typical dark goth that her outfit and makeup might imply. Sure, she’s snarky and dry of wit, but there’s also a light-heartedness that plays out about her. Don’t get me wrong, she’s as scared ish-less as anybody else and perhaps even more so. But whether she’s trying to make lemonade out the lemons she’s suddenly been tossed or whether the night’s events have simply caused her to lose her grip on reality, she just seems to exude an aura of comic goofiness that make her an innocent and quite frankly, adorable character. Trapped inside an abandoned antiques store, you grab a rod and go fishing; find a bicycle lying around while trying to outpace a hungry carnivore, you hop on and start pedaling. She also never seems to stop smiling; when her ruby-red grin finally does disappear from her face and stays gone, you know stuff’s about to get very, very real.
Overall, I find The Dinosaur Experiment to highly enjoyable. It’s a good, smooth story with enough campiness to keep it from being overly dark while still providing the obligatory chills and potential for nightmares. And for dinosaur enthusiasts such as myself, it’s a great holdover film until the release of Jurassic World in summer of 2015. Rent from Redbox, buy it from Amazon or Walmart, or watch it on Hulu+. You won’t be disappointed.