MIFF Review: Dinosaur 13

Blogged by: Review by Filmme Fatales editor Brodie Lancaster. 07 Aug 2014 View comments
When a team of fossil-hunters uncovered T. rex remains in 1990, they had no clue that what was coming would be even more dramatic than the after-effects of John Hammond building the electrified raptor cage in Jurassic Park. The documentary ‘Dinosaur 13’ opens by telling us that what we’re about to see is “a good, American tale that had a bad ending”, so even as we watch video footage of a scrappy group of archaeologists uncovering the find of a lifetime, we know it is not going to end well. 



On a research trip with the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota, a young paleontologist named Susan Hendrickson stumbled upon the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever found. Before that day in 1990, twelve T. rex remains had been found in the world, none more than 40 per cent complete. This fossil – dubbed “Sue” after the scientist who found her – was estimated to be 80 per cent complete. Sue was a huge deal.
 
Through a great number of interviews with the likes of Hendrickson, brothers Peter and Neal Larson of the Black Hills Institute, National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, and journalist Kristin Donnan, director Todd Douglas Miller pieces together a complex and sprawling case of unprecedented scientific discovery and heartbreaking government intervention.
 
When the Larsons took Sue – all nine tonnes of her – back to their research facility in Black Hills for preservation, they were unwillingly stumbling onto a legal minefield involving the United States Federal Guard and American Indian Land Trust. The landowner, who seemed happy to accept the money the BHI paid him for the removal of a dinosaur from his property, later went back on his word and claimed Sue was stolen from him. Because that landowner held his Prehistoric property in trust from the government, however, it was not technically his to own – or sell. After a year of lovingly preparing Sue’s bones, the BHI team had to sit back and watch as the FBI and the Federal Guard seized all of their hard work in alleged violation of the antiquities act. “They hauled Sue away,” Pete Larson wept on camera, still heartbroken by his loss decades later. 



What followed was the largest criminal case ever tried in South Dakota, what newspapers at the time dubbed “the custody battle of the century”. By the time it was over, Pete had served time in federal prison, Bill Clinton had assumed office, and Sue was sent to Sotheby’s in New York City, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. She had not been removed from her crate in over six years.
 
Like the story that it follows, ‘Dinosaur 13’ begins in an ecstatic place – it is so much fun to watch fossil nerds accidentally notice their life’s work sticking out of the side of a mountain – but before long it becomes weighed down with legal jargon and technical complications. In order to tell her complete story, Sue gets lost. You begin to take for granted that all this arguing, fighting and protesting is not over money laundering or land ownership, but over an actual dinosaur. A 12-metre long, four-metre tall dinosaur who lay in the ground, on a ranch in South Dakota, for millions upon millions of years, before the day that Susan Hendrickson took a walk to kill time. Despite being in the shadows for much of the film, Sue – who found a new home in 1997 at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History – undoubtedly remains the 67-million-year-old star of the film.
 

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