Before 1990, only twelve Tyrannosaurus Rex had ever been discovered. As you may have guessed, Dinosaur 13 documents the incredible discovery of Sue, the thirteenth and most complete specimen to date, by a commercial group of palaeontologists from South Dakota calling themselves the Black Hills Institute and the subsequent legal meltdown that followed shortly thereafter. Make no bones about it, Sue’s story is a naturally riveting tale of rock obsessed rebels caught in a real-estate netherworld where con men and power hungry institutions wield the power to ruin lives and bury dreams, but too soon the dino-hunting excitement and intrigue of this insular world is traded for the tedium of offscreen courtroom drama.
Todd Miller’s debut documentary begins with the sweeping propulsion of Matt Morton’s string compositions matched in perfect rhythm with footage shot by the Black Hills team on that fateful expedition on August 12, 1990. As it happens, Sue was accidentally discovered by Susan Hendrickson, who the dinosaur was named after, as it was protruding from the open face of a rock wall on what was thought to be Maurice Williams’ land, a seemingly enthusiastic local Native American eccentric. At that point in time, fossils were being sold for minuscule amounts, so with a gentleman’s word and a $5000 check, Sue was purchased, carefully removed from the cliff and relocated to the Black Hills Institute for scientific preparation. On May 14th, 1992, the Institute was raided by an assembly of FBI agents and the National Guard, and Sue, along with thousands of documents and other fossils, were confiscated, officials claiming that the skeleton was stolen from land held in trust by the U.S. government, and thus, was government property. From here, all hell breaks loose for Institute president Peter Larson and his shell shocked scientists.
And yet, at the moment of expropriating heartbreak, this is where the film begins to lose its narrative footing. In all the nasty wrongdoings done, the film’s victims begin to grate in their despair. Despite all the evidence presented in their favor, Larson and his gang slowly but surely lose their empathic flair, all due to an over emphasis of personal misery and a lack of narrative focus which wobbles between the density of time and the pointless number of days in which Sue has been locked in storage, as if the million year old skeleton will all of a sudden turn to dust.
Within this mess of amateur footage and exhaustingly irrelevant reenactments, there is a missed opportunity for docu-“dinomite”. There are plenty of rich disputes that Miller merely grazes on his way to court – the intrigue of commercial excavation in favor of institutional process, along with the potential impact the T-Rex might have had on the small town of Black Hills.
While Dinosaur 13 begins with a swirl of exploratory wonder that conjures memories of childhood intrigue, it quickly fizzles out in the mopery of dry procedure. Sue’s story should have been as majestorial as the magnificent beast herself, but it just isn’t.
Reviewed on January 17th at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival – U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION Programme. 105 Min