A subset of the recent scientific-documentary-as-thriller tradition epitomized by “The Cove” and “Blackfish,” Todd Douglas Miller’s “Dinosaur 13” is both awe-inspiring and tragic. Conventionally made but featuring an undeniably compelling story at its core, Miller’s debut benefits greatly from the combination of passion and sadness embedded in its subjects’ tale, which recounts the historic discovery of a near-complete Tyrannosaurs Rex skeleton and the various bureaucratic forces it attracted.
Despite the ancient history at the source of its drama, “Dinosaur 13” focuses on the ensuing litigation as the seemingly innocent paleontologists face unreasonable allegations about their work. Opening with the joy of uncovering natural wonders and concluding with dashed dreams, Miller’s overview is alternately an inspiring and infuriating ride.
“Dinosaur 13” takes its cues from the 2002 book “Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law and My Life” and focuses on the plight of its main author, Peter Larson. When Larson and three other explorers (including initial discoverer Susan Hendrickson, for whom the eventual skeleton was named) happened upon a hulking T-rex skeleton scattered across the cliff of an otherwise barren desert, there were only a dozen such specimens in collections around the world, none more complete than 40% (as one of many recurring title cards explain).
Once fully recovered, Sue contained nearly 80% of the full animal, comprising a tremendous achievement not only for the field of paleontology but for the small town of Hill City where Larson and his colleagues maintained the modest Black Hill Institute, which suddenly gained a major tourist attraction — but not for long: In 1992, the FBI showed up with an alarming volume of agents as well as the National Guard to confiscate Sue, making dubious claims that it had been stolen from private property and instigating a national uproar.
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Before “Dinosaur 13” arrives at those grim developments, Miller effectively conveys the team’s excitement over their discovery through detailed home video recordings of the dig. The filmmaker also keenly sets up the conflict to come with documented evidence of Larson’s handshake deal with the landowner who would eventually turn on the diggers for the sake of his own clandestine profit motives. By revealing these details bit by bit, Miller makes it easy to get wrapped up in the moment just as Black Hill staffers recall the experience in contemporary interviews.
For that reason, it’s impossible not to empathize with their conundrum when the FBI abruptly snatches Sue in a cold show of force. As the town throws its efforts behind the cause and the allegations that the dinosaur was illegally removed from private property, the situation erupts into a national news story, and the movie relies heavily on media footage to resurrect their ire.
Yet even as these support efforts prove that the researchers’ work has impact, the scrutiny leads to further disarray once a Cheyenne tribesman claims his own ownership of the fossil. But the precise nature of Sue’s status remains in a bizarrely ambiguous state. As one expert recalls, “Sue came out from an absolute legal netherworld,” which provides sufficient gray area for the government to further persecute its targets.
Over the course of a grand jury investigation that finds Larson and his peers facing elaborate criminal charges that threaten both his business and freedom, “Dinosaur 13” shifts into a swiftly-paced legal thriller and its tone grows increasingly morose. The prospects of Hill City losing its prized possession and Larson facing an even worse fate unfold with an increasingly dire tone, but it’s this very transition that allows the movie to get more personal with Larson himself. As he recalls his connection to the discovery, the poignancy of his situation intensifies, particularly as he recalls visiting the warehouse where the bones have been stored and talking to them as if visiting the grave of a loved one — which, in essence, he was.
Once “Dinosaur 13” transitions into an overview of the court case, its heaping of sympathies for the explorers results in an admittedly one-sided look at the case, but Miller nevertheless makes a credible argument for a depressing miscarriage of justice. While overall a very traditional mixture of talking heads and archival footage — not to mention several instances of the typical documentary sin involving an overbearing score — “Dinosaur 13” contains a somber quality rooted in Larson’s obvious intelligence and victimization. While hardly a showcase for top-notch filmmaking, “Dinosaur 13” lets the innate appeal of the saga do the heavy lifting, which in this case is more than sufficient.
His aspirations quashed and exploited by the conspiratorial forces of the multimillion-dollar fossil industry, Larson’s plight echoes the exasperations of “The Cove” subject Ric O’Barry, who dedicated his life to saving dolphins. Just as O’Barry’s ecological fervor turned him into an outspoken hero, Larson’s interest in fossils is more personal than scientific in nature. “Dinosaur 13” also echoes “The Cove” by embodying the heartfelt commitment of its subject (not for nothing does “The Cove” director Louis Psihoyos, formerly a National Geographic photographer assigned to cover Sue’s discovery, crop up as an interviewee). Yet while O’Barry was an activist fighting a global threat, Larson faced a more intimate conundrum that eventually caused him to serve time. Under those oppressive circumstances, his ability to make the best of things — by providing scientific lectures to inmates and continuing to imagine a future for Sue outside of a box — turns him into a bonafide scientific martyr.
The final act of “Dinosaur 13,” in which Larson copes with hitting rock bottom and battles to get a happy ending for Sue one last time, makes for an invigorating climax. As Sue’s fate falls into the hands of a high stakes auction and the world continues to anticipate her future, the dead animal becomes a mirror for Larson’s unflappable obsession. “She was a star to all of us,” one of his peers recalls, illustrating how “Dinosaur 13” ultimately has less to say about the bones at issue than the people dedicated to putting them together.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Picked up by Lionsgate and CNN Films after its Sundance premiere, “Dinosaur 13” should stands do well in limited theatrical release and garner strong ratings on TV — particularly given the successes of other recent scientific documentaries like it.