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Review: Buzzy Sundance Fossil-Hunting Documentary 'Dinosaur 13'

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 15, 2014 at 10:22AM

Ever since a name as such was coined in the early 19th century, dinosaurs have been a source of fascination. The idea of huge, monstrous creatures that ruled the planet in a time before man, remaining in the present day only in skeletal fossils, have captured the imaginations of children and adults for over two hundred years. Those remains are the star attractions in museums all over the world, and have inspired stories from "Journey To The Center Of The Earth" to next year's "Jurassic World," a sequel to one-time top-grossing film in history, "Jurassic Park."
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Dinosaur 13

Ever since a name as such was coined in the early 19th century, dinosaurs have been a source of fascination. The idea of huge, monstrous creatures that ruled the planet in a time before man, remaining in the present day only in skeletal fossils, have captured the imaginations of children and adults for over two hundred years. Those remains are the star attractions in museums all over the world, and have inspired stories from "Journey To The Center Of The Earth" to next year's "Jurassic World," a sequel to one-time top-grossing film in history, "Jurassic Park."

But paleontology and fossil-hunting can be a dirty, difficult business. The so-called Bone Wars between Edward Drinker Coper and Othniel Charles Marsh in the latter half of the 19th century was a bitter feud ending with Coper dying in poverty, and the dinosaur renaissance begun in the 1960s hasn't improved matters much. It's this milieu that the documentary "Dinosaur 13," one of the buzzier non-fiction films at Sundance this year, digs into, but it's a shame that it barely ends up brushing the dust off the bone, as it were.

"Dinosaur 13"

Director Todd Douglas Miller certainly has an impressive story on his hands, that of a dinosaur called Sue. Sue is a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, one of the largest and most complete ever found,  discovered in South Dakota by private fossil-hunting company the Black Hills Institute. The institute's president Pete Larson paid the owner of the land on which the fossil was found, Maurice Williams, $5000 in 1990, one of the highest sums up to that point, and set about lovingly reassembling the remains.

But this is where it got complicated: Williams then claimed that the money had only been payment for the Black Hills team to clean the fossil so he could sell it later. Except that Williams was a member of the Sioux tribe, and his land was held in trust by the U.S. government, and any sales had to be cleared through the government, as they technically owned the property. Then, the FBI raided the Black Hills Institute as part of an ongoing investigation into allegedly questionable practices by the group, kicking off a custody battle that took the best part of the decade, ending with Sue being purchased by the Field Museum in Chicago for a record $8.362 million.

Taking cues from recent docs like "The Cove" and "Blackfish," Miller cuts and scores his film like a propulsive thriller. It's an admirable attempt to break out of formal talking-head sameness, but unfortunately this gambit doesn't entirely work: the narrative isn't quite dramatic enough to sustain such strategies, so it sometimes feels like the film's disguised as a legal drama rather than actually becoming one.

Dinosaur 13

The film is most effective when examining the processes of Larson and his Black Hills Institute team, and the real passion behind their love for paleontology; more than one member breaks down when recalling the decades-past custody battle, like a devastated parent after a bitter divorce. But it feels like Miller got a little too close to the subject; this is an enormously one-sided and somewhat shallow take on what was clearly a complex case. Larson and co. receive deference to the extent that we only hear their side of the story, bar a few cutaways to government types mostly portrayed as villains, and Miller is reluctant to really grapple with the alleged wrongdoing by the Black Hills Institute, and the shadier side of fossil hunters in general (in fact, the film's politics come worryingly close to Bundy Farm libertarianism in places).

The result is that, after a promising half-hour or so, the film becomes increasingly less convincing and less involving, particularly as the real-life narrative peaks halfway through. Miller's documentary skills seem solid enough, but this particular story needed more objectivity, and a lot more rigor, to be worth telling in this manner. [C]

This article is related to: Reviews, Review, Dinosaur 13, Documentary


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