Todd Douglas Miller’s Dinosaur 13 invites you into a world in which people care for dinosaur fossils the way you and I care for immediate family. In this reality, a long-dead animal is resurrected as a living spirit, with an identity and the capacity to experience emotions: meet Sue, a Tyrannosaurus rex born again in a quarry near Rapid City, South Dakota. One paleontologist describes the successful separation of two segments of Sue’s fossilized skeleton as “probably the highest point in my life.” Another spends evenings standing outside the window of a warehouse facility containing Sue’s bones, wistfully talking for hours to “the true love of his life.” The man’s wife explains, with a hint of jealousy, that he and Sue were made for each other. It’s a love story for the ages—across the Jurassic and Cretaceous Ages.
Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Producer: Todd Douglas Miller
Cinematographer: Thomas Petersen
Editor: Todd Douglas Miller
Music: Matt Morton
Cast: Stan Adelstein, Lanice Archer, Robert Bakker, Philip Currie, Patrick Duffy, Bruce Ellison, Denise Etzkorn, Bob Farrar, Bill Harlan, Susan Hendrickson, Lynn Hochstafl, Jack Horner, Neal L. Larson, Peter L. Larson, Phil Manning, Marv Matkins, Carson Neff Murdy, Keith Nelson, Louie Psihoyos, David Redden
Premiere: January 16, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 15, 2014
US Distributors: CNN Films, Lionsgate, The Film Arcade
If you can’t match that level of enthusiasm for a pile of petrified bones (no offense), Dinosaur 13 is still an engaging examination of our desire to understand and relate to Earth’s earliest inhabitants. It’s also a bizarre legal thriller about the value of fossils and the troublesome jurisdictions that come into play when humans stake an ownership claim to a piece of the planet, and all of its history found therein. But yet there’s a sense of incompleteness to Dinosaur 13. Like Sue’s 80% complete skeleton, it also seems to be missing some critical pieces.
In the late 1970’s a group of budding fossil hunters led by a man named Pete Larson founded the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc. Based out of tiny Hill City, SD, they did brisk business excavating and selling dinosaur bones to museums, institutes, and collectors around the world. In 1990, on the ranchland of a man named Maurice Williams, Institute volunteer Susan Hendrickson stumbled upon a marvelously intact T rex skeleton (per paleontology tradition, the fossil was named “Sue”).
It takes an imaginative director to depict what I just summarized as riveting narrative, and Miller gives it his all with stylized production flair and a constant, tense musical score. The problem is that these details just aren't that gripping. Each of the discovery team members describe in laborious detail exactly what they said and did on August 12, the morning of Sue’s discovery. While it underscores how personally invested Larson and his colleagues were in their work, it’s also time wasted on meaningless fluff (the weather, a flat tire that made someone late), like scrolling through a bad Facebook news feed. And it's a worrying sign that Miller is already in too deep, focusing on the trees instead of the forest, or in this case, the bones instead of the skeleton.
Sue was the 13th and most complete T rex fossil ever discovered, and it took nearly a month to carefully excavate her priceless bones. But in fact there was a price: the Institute paid Williams a lump sum of $5,000 for the right to Sue’s skeleton—at the time the most ever paid for a T rex. Williams waved off a contract and the Institute fatefully accepted the handshake deal, blind with glee at the splash they were about to make in the scientific community.
Sue's labeling with the auspicious number 13 would prove to be a curse for the Institute. By May of 1992, as the team worked tirelessly to preserve every one of Sue’s bones by hand, word got out about their historic find and mysterious enemies appeared. Led by an ambitious prosecutor and with the assistance of the National Guard, dozens of FBI agents raided the Institute and removed not only Sue, but truckloads of other bones, records, and files, eventually building a 153-count federal indictment against Larson and his colleagues for stealing fossilized remains from public land. Miller utilizes compelling home video and archival news footage to portray the media frenzy around the story, including clips of outraged Hill City residents chanting “Save Sue!” as the government reclaims their dear dinosaur. But here again he gets temporarily stuck in the mud with mostly dull details about the government's case against the Black Hills Institute (and relies on far too much expository text on the screen in the process).
Turns out Maurice Williams decided Sue was his after all, staking his claim on the fact that she was found on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, specifically on a plot of land held in his trust (one person describes the hallowed ground as “an absolute legal netherworld”). As such, a federal judge had to decide a.) whether Williams’ original handshake sale was even legal to begin with, and b.) if fossils are located on land, or fossils actually are land. In any event it was partly due to Williams’ complaint that the federal case was opened against Larson and his colleagues. The fossil hunters had suddenly become the hunted, and the entire industry of fossil excavation and sales was about to be upended. The indictments against the Black Hills Institute resulted in the largest federal trial in South Dakota history—and significant prison time for Pete Larson.
All of this legal drama would make for a fine hour on TruTV, but the lasting significance of Sue's case is all but ignored in Dinosaur 13. Miller assumes a level of familiarity with the cultural and scientific context of the case that most viewers will lack. Among other obvious questions, was this really more than just a headline-friendly custody case over a dead dinosaur, and what has changed in the educational and scientific community in the nearly two decades that have passed since (spoiler alert) Sue was auctioned off for a record-breaking, industry-changing price? (I was glad to find these answers and other interesting nuggets in an excellent Washington Post article from earlier this year.) Had Miller not spent so much time detailing the minutiae of Sue’s saga and the legitimate injustice that occurred, he could have surveyed how much of a game-changer she actually was, and how much society now values fossils from a historic and educational perspective.
Watching Dinosaur 13, I felt a bit like a cynical Jeff Goldblum sitting next to Laura Dern during that test ride through Jurassic Park. It's dramatic and occasionally suspenseful, and there's a lot of enthusiastic gushing about dinosaurs. But I was looking for bigger questions and ideas to be explored and had the feeling the tour didn’t fully deliver on its promise. Sure, we get to know T rex pretty well, but as with Dinosaur 13, that doesn’t mean we fully understand Sue’s significance, at least outside of the perspective of hopelessly romantic paleontologists.