Sundance 2014: DINOSAUR 13 Review

     January 17, 2014


In the span of the earth’s history, human beings have been roaming this planet for an incredibly tiny amount of time.  It’s the blink of an eye compared to the violent and lengthy history of our planet, but one species that truly did “rule the world” was the dinosaurs.  The creatures reigned supreme for a significantly longer period of time than humans—about 165,000,000 years to our 200,000 years—and it’s humbling to ruminate on their existence.  It is in our nature to look to the past to learn about ourselves, and in the early 1990s a group of paleontologists stumbled upon one of the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils ever recovered.  It was a massive find, but the fallout from this magnificent discovery epitomizes the pettiness with which our species can so hubristically carry ourselves in the face of such an awe-inspiring creature.

Dinosaur 13 chronicles the discovery and ensuing legal battles over the custody of the T-Rex known as “Sue,” all the while telling a uniquely human story that is ironically anchored by a species that would put us all to shame.  Read my review after the jump.

In the summer of 1990, a group of paleontologists and workers from the Black Hills Institute—a privately owned corporation specializing in the collection, excavation, and sale of fossils—stumbled across a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil just outside of Hill City, South Dakota.  The find was significant because this was one of the largest and most complete T-Rex fossils ever found.  The Black Hills Institute team, headed up by Peter Larson, began carefully excavating the creature in order to take it back to the Institute where it would be further excavated and studied.  Larson and his team paid $5,000 to the landowner where the fossil was found—which was a significant amount for the independently run Black Hills Institute—and then were on their way.

For two years, Larson and his team painstakingly excavated the T-Rex fossil, which they had dubbed “Sue”.  Larson figured that the excellent fossil would be a big draw for the Black Hills Institute and subsequently the small town of Hill City, where he envisioned visitors from all over the world coming to marvel at the magnificence of the creature.  That was not to be, as suddenly in May 1992 the Black Hills Institute was served with a seizure warrant from the U.S. government, backed by a full FBI team, the National Guard, and a U.S. attorney.  The government claimed that the fossil was not theirs to take, as it was discovered on Indian land that the U.S. government held in a trust.  They then proceeded to pack up not just Sue, but every single fossil and paper that the Black Hills Institute had on record.


Larson and his team had no choice but to relent, but over the three day period during which the government packed up and seized Sue and other fossils (which was only possible with the aid of Larson and his team as to not completely ruin the specimen), the town of Hill City was overrun with protestors demanding that the dinosaur stay in Hill City and, subsequently, significant media coverage.  While Larson seemingly had run up against an unwinnable situation, things were about to get much, much worse.  What followed was an even more disheartening series of twists and turns that brought Larson and the Black Hills Institute under the intense and baffling scrutiny of the U.S. government with severe consequences.

It’s tough to get into the rest of Dinosaur 13 without spoiling some of the surprises and turns that follow, but suffice it to say that at its heart, the film is a David vs. Goliath story about how swiftly and intensely a large, powerful body can completely destroy “the little man.”  It’s almost disturbing how poorly Larson and his team are treated, and director Todd Douglas Miller allows the Larsons and many, many members from the Black Hills Institute to tell their story on camera, along with some of those that covered the dispute for the media.  The film falters a bit by only offering one account of the legal battle from the opposing side, but that may have just been a consequence of the fact that the “opposing side” in this case is the U.S. government.

Dinosaur 13 tells an undeniably fascinating story, but there is some fat to Miller’s film that definitely slows down the pace here and there.  A few scenes feel extraneous or unnecessary, and nearly all of Miller’s recreations of some of the events fall flat.  There’s plenty of invaluable archival footage scattered throughout to give audiences a sense of perspective, but again, Miller lingers a tad too long on some of these videos.  Given how naturally compelling this story is, the film almost gets in the way of itself.

The fact that the parties involved are arguing over a literal reminder of how insignificant humans are in the span of Earth’s massive lifespan is not entirely lost on Miller, and he does a fine job of framing the story around this conceit.  Again, sometimes the film gets bogged down with the details and loses a lot of steam, but the passion that Larson and his team have for this specimen and the field of paleontology as a whole is undeniable.

The fact that something so unjust could happen to a ragtag group of dinosaur bone enthusiasts is disheartening to say the least, and you can’t help but think about how, in the face of such prolonged bickering and bullying, this very creature looms large as a reminder of one of the most dominant species in Earth’s history—and it’s not us.  We are but a spec of dust on Earth’s timeline, but our human nature is unique in the way that we interact with and treat each other.  Unfortunately, Dinosaur 13 shows us at our most unforgiving and predatory.

Rating: B-

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