The importance of documentation is a key theme in Dinosaur 13, a film about a near-complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton found in South Dakota in 1990. The government seizure of the fossil made national news, and now the subsequent legal battle between the paleontologists who discovered “Sue,” as the creature has been named, and Federal authorities forms the center of this documentary that tips its favor heavily to the side of the former party. Those scientists, including Pete Larson and the T.rex’s namesake, Susan Hendrickson, are the protagonists of the story as told by director Todd Douglas Miller, and we’re meant to feel sympathy for them in their loss, yet there’s also a lesson to be learned here: diligent records can both benefit and harm us in the end.
Dinosaur 13 opens with a lengthy sequence showing the discovery and excavation of Sue. The self-documentation that is to be expected with scientific study aids the film by providing a full archival depiction of the events. This footage is seductive and very well laid out. Miller goes for an almost strictly chronological structure for the doc, and so we’re drawn and immersed in this narrative of passionate people and the find of the century, as far as dinosaur fossils are concerned. Anyone going in cold won’t even be aware of the custody struggle and bureaucratic complications and ramifications that are to come, until these plot points arrive on screen in line with how things sequentially played out. It’s as good a set up as you could want for a story like this.
Once the film gets past that sequence, which includes the transportation of the bones to the Larson-headed Black Hills Institute of Geological Research and the heavily manned seizure, plus the local protest, the visual storytelling takes a nosedive. Without more of that strong pre-existing footage, Miller becomes dependent on the talking heads (including Larson, Hendrickson, Oscar-winning documentarian Louie Psihoyos, who was there during the feds’ takeover as a photojournalist, and even some representatives from the other side of the legal battle) and a whole lot of newspaper headline scans. At one point the paleontologists’ self-documentation comes back briefly for a sort of flashback — or held-back, as I’d be more inclined to call it — presenting proof of transaction in Black Hills’s case for ownership. We also see a copy of the check, an additional type of document of the events.
Making a better case for the prosecution turns out to be complicated laws regarding Native American reservation land and property held in government trusts and whether or not a fossil is considered real estate or, fitting the theme of the film, yet another type of record. With all that, the scientific documentation works against Black Hills by being evidence of where they were digging up Sue and other fossils over the years. The doc follows the story away from just the specific T.rex battle to the trial of Larson and the rest of his team that followed as a result of the Sue situation. The institute was involved in many other profitable digs that allegedly were similarly illegal. And the government could make arguments for these only by having confiscated more documents from Black Hills itself.
Through this other court battle, Dinosaur 13 becomes a documentary about geography as much as it’s about geology. Global positioning, mapping of everything from property to territory and the laws about jurisdiction and claims and customs are all significant to the story, with the last being another type of significant documentation, one that is part of the scientists’ downfall. There’s an irony in that plot development as well to the consideration of the T.rex’s life millions and millions of years ago, when there weren’t any of the national or international borders and paper trails and red tape and the rest of the effects of man’s need for notation for either proof or posterity.
It’s never addressed, but there’s something clearly odd about anyone at all having custody of something so old and representational of a life, let alone exploiting it commercially. Larson is apparently a controversial figure in the world of paleontology, something that never comes across in the film. Instead he’s a character made out to be a victim of arcane laws and a system that doesn’t seem to make sense to him and his associates — despite how much it’s relevant to their work. “How could they do that?” is a question that comes up more than once in the doc, and aside from the fact that this film should be answering that fact-centric inquiry, and it does, the question that should be asked here instead is “Should they be able to do that?” And such a question ought to be directed at both sides.
Basically, Dinosaur 13 is a film of local versus federal, and anyone biased in favor of the former in that conflict is going to easily be in accord with Larson and Black Hills. But outside of that great first-act footage of all the work they did and the credit they deserve, we’re never given much reason to care if they win the Sue battle or their other case — a subplot, by the way, that is too much of a diversion from the film’s real main subject, which is the dinosaur rather than any of the humans. Miller loses a lot of his focus and momentum when he gets away from Sue, although even that narrative has a dull third act as depicted on screen.
Altogether, it is an interesting story set in a fascinating world, yet this film fails to both maintain its initially thrilling plot and fully explore its backdrop. Most disappointingly, though, it’s just an insufficient documentation of a chain of events so concerned with different types of documentation. Frankly, it won’t be much of a loss if Dinosaur 13 doesn’t survive the next hundred-million years.
Dinosaur 13 is now in theaters and on demand.