Posted on Friday, January 17th, 2014 by Germain Lussier
Before 1990, only 12 Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons had been found, and they were all less than 40% complete. Then a group of South Dakota paleontologists found Sue, an 80% complete fossil. It was the biggest T-Rex find in history, and that 13th find is how Todd Douglas Miller‘s documentary Dinosaur 13 gets its title.
The film tells the story of Sue’s discovery and, more importantly, the jaw-dropping events that occurred once the bones were out of the ground. The subject makes for a worthy documentary. In digging into the history behind the case, however, Miller finds many lesser stories below it, which are interesting to varying degrees. As a result, the film feel long and unfocused.
After South Dakota paleontologist Peter Larson, his brother and their team found the massive specimen in 1990, they thought it was going to be the jewel in the crown of their own small-town museum. Then, out of nowhere, the government showed up and took Sue away. So began a years-long legal battle that went beyond just ownership of the T-Rex, and targeted the legality of the Larsons’ fossil collecting practice as a whole.
Dinosaur 13 starts off strong, getting into the ins and outs of one particular type of paleontology, and explaining the incredible care one must take to properly care for a fossil. The fact that Larson and friends filmed almost everything at the time with their own video cameras helps immensely in telling their story, and Miller uses this footage to great effect.
Once Sue is taken away by the FBI, however, things begin a downward spiral both for the real life subjects and the film itself. The movie has invested heavily in the image and power of Sue, and when the film goes away from her for a good 30 minutes or so, we’re left without an exciting focal point. The story gets super-technical in a legal sense, though it remains compelling as the Larsons are subjected to a complex and nearly unbelievable parade of legal attacks from the US government.
Captivating as that part of the story may be, the story of legal injustice suffered by a couple of regular citizens is all-too familiar, and the telling is all talking heads. It doesn’t have the power and wonder of the discovery of a huge T-Rex, which by this point in the film is just sitting in a box. Dinosaur 13 tells an amazing story in an often pedestrian manner. It’s a film you’ll be glad you saw, and will lead to plenty of discussions after, but its shortcomings can be as prominent as the subject at hand.
/Film rating: 6 out of 10
(Today Lionsgate and CNN Films acquired North American rights to the film. It will be released theatrically with a North American broadcast premiere on CNN/U.S.)