I caught two movies this weekend that, despite having seemingly nothing in common, are worth discussing today. The first was The Dinosaur Project from 2012. It’s basically an updated version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, where an expedition follows up on a number of alleged “monster” sightings, only to discover a hitherto unknown region where dinosaurs still roam. Naturally, there’s the requisite dangers to make it an action film, as well as some interpersonal dramas to try to connect with viewers. The big “hook” for the film is that everything the audience sees is actual footage filmed by the expedition team itself, a combination of one professional steady-cam and what are basically a number of GoPro cameras. It was an entertaining enough film, but not my favorite, even among the variety of Lost World-type movies out there.
The other picture I saw was Destination: Planet Negro! from 2013. It starts like a 1930s serial in which the leaders of the Black community decide that the only way they can get along with whites is by leaving on a rocket ship to Mars. Three heroes are chosen for a test flight, but their trip runs into an unexpected time/space storm and they crash land in 2013 Kansas City. The rest of the movie then revolves around the three of them trying to understand how society and culture have changed. The science fiction elements are largely limited to the serial-style portions of the movie, and the special effects try to reflect that. Despite it being a comedy, it’s played straight, with much of the humor coming out of the blatant disconnect between how the protagonists understand their world versus how they apply those ideas to the twenty-first century. Ace’s reaction to hearing that Beneatha was Googled while she was unconscious is priceless!
The reason I bring both of these movies up together is that they both try to artificially mimic the specific hallmarks of certain film technologies and techniques. The Dinosaur Project with its “found” footage, and Destination: Planet Negro! with its serial trappings. In terms of strict mimicry, they both fail. That is, they got enough of the details wrong that neither feels authentic. Dinosaur comes much closer to the mark, but camera angles that don’t seem to quite match where cameras are supposedly located and a lack of visible differentiation between the steady-cam footage and the body cameras’ subtly suggest that it’s not as authentic as it’s supposed to be. Destination, on the other hand, did little adjust the film footage itself to make it look more authentic. It is black and white, but there’s no graininess or poor film edits. It looks like a modern movie with deliberately cheap special effects.
But what’s interesting is that the details they get wrong, while considerably smaller and less obvious in Dinosaur, hurt the film more than the blatant misses in Destination. And that’s worth noting because of why. Dinosaur is intended to be an actual found footage documentary; so any deviations from what a batch of found footage would actually looks like impacts the film’s central conceit. By contrast, Destination is a pretty obvious pastiche that is just acting in service to the theme of comparing two cultures. They get enough details right to show the viewer their intent, but spend the bulk of their time instead on the messages within the movie.
In both cases, the filmmakers clearly show themselves to be fans of their respective ouvres, but because of how they approached their interpretations of them, the people who actually spent less attention to detail wound up making a more successful homage. My point here is that being a fan and trying to replicate another’s style or tone doesn’t necessarily have to mean it is a slavish reproduction. Provided that it’s presented in a proper context, a less-than-faithful copy can wind up showing a greater passion, a greater depth of fandom, than a more dogmatic one.