(Sundance London Film Festival 2014)Dir: Todd Douglas Miller By: Oliver Thom
Until the discovery of a T. Rex christened “Sue” by a pack of lovable dino nerds in a South Dakota cliff face, only twelve incomplete examples of the world’s most famous dinosaur had ever been found. But Sue was almost complete – over eighty percent – and she was also the largest. We’re told she is the most important dinosaur fossil in history – and her discoverers go suitably cuckoo.
But this is where the good news stops. Sue and her minders (headed by the film’s hero, Peter Larsen) quickly become the victims of an unbelievable ten year legal railroading by the United States government. Dinosaur 13 is the story of Sue and how the good guys got shafted by the bigger fish.
Picking up with her discovery in mid-1990 by the amateur palaeontologists (and commercial fossil hunters) of the Black Hills Institute, Sue is boxed up and sent to Hill City, population 500 – she is set to be the centrepiece of a cute hometown dino museum. Hill City falls in love with its newest neighbour, and the Black Hills Institute gang – friends since childhood – are instantly endearing (Miller does well to use that same sense of wide eyed wonder “Jurassic Park“ was able to exploit over twenty years ago).
The whole thing is built up to be too good to be true – and of course it is. Thirty agents of the FBI arrive in Hill City to take Sue – and they’re backed up by the National Guard. They pack up Sue and everything else inside the Institute (some of the guardsmen are in tears as kids beg to stop them taking the dinosaur away) but Peter Larsen and friends are not told why. The case goes nationwide and a shifty D.A. pegs them with stealing property from government land (though the team had bought the remains from the landowner, the landowner had no right to sell). The custody battle gets more and more ridiculous – over 150 separate charges (from theft and money laundering to conspiracy) are thrown at the Institute and the case becomes the most expansive and extensive in state history – and the most embarrassing.
And there really is no payoff. The bad guys win. Larsen is steamrollered and handed serious jail time for the one charge that sticks. Where Sue does finally end up is a minor victory, at least. Split down the middle, “Dinosaur 13″ is one half dino love letter and one half court procedural, and the boiling point level of injustice the latter half is able to create is unbearable.
The doc is told conventionally enough – built to a trusted if tired formula of talking heads mixed with archival footage. It’s backed up by some flaky reconstructions and there are some holes – a good chunk of the film feels clogged with legal jargon and by the end Dinosaur 13 feels longer than it actually is. Moral grey areas in how fossils are collected and sold privately are hinted at but not explored, and the film could be accused of setting up its villains just to knock them down – a sense of national embarrassment has kept “Dinosaur 13’s“ villains in the dark and they don’t come out here – a prosecutor from the case appears just to add a token sense of balance.
Dinosaur 13 is Sue’s story, but clearly the star here is Larsen – the film lets him lead and is smart for doing so – he’s a real world Alan Grant without the composure but with more optimism. During the decade of legal wrangling, while Sue sat in storage in a government building, Larsen would sneak up to a window and reassure the box of bones – one day he’ll bring her back home to Hill City. He didn’t succeed, but he did try.
Dir: Todd Douglas Miller
To learn more about the movie, check out the website : http://dinosaur13movie.com/