While the Sundance Film Festival has not necessarily buried the logline of Todd Miller’s documentary, Dinosaur 13, early versions of the festival’s film guide promised to deliver the true story of one of the greatest discoveries in human history – the 1990 unearthing of a the world’s largest and most complete T. rex skeleton in an unassuming South Dakota bluff. Despite a more full synopsis of the film now floating around, it’s best to approach Miller’s film with the minimum of previous knowledge. Depending on your age and interest in dino bones, pieces of the story will likely ring a bell, but Miller’s film chronicles a shocking, unnerving, and often very surprising story.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that one of the film’s many talking heads briefly mentions that what sounds like a rousing story about discovery and human interest has “a bad ending,” hinting early on that Dinosaur 13 has a very different story to tell – and it does, it’s just unfortunate that it’s buried underneath whole piles of cinematic refuse.
Principally focused on brothers Peter and Neal Larson, the film picks up on the morning of the pair’s biggest discovery yet. Proprietors of the Black Hills Institute in tiny Hill City, South Dakota, the brothers and their various cohorts had been digging for fossils for years (the Larson brothers, we soon learn, had been doing it since they were kids), and while their aims were not purely academic, the BHI folks were well trained and truly passionate about their commercial endeavor. Susan Hendrickson, a volunteer who had worked alongside Peter for many years (a point driven home during an unnecessary section that chronicles their work on dig sites in and around Peru), had recently turned her focus on a section of Black Hills bluff, and despite a foggy morning filled with mishaps, had gone out hunting for fossils.
She found them – in the form of a massive T. rex skeleton that was just beginning to reveal itself underneath nearly thirty feet of bluff. The elation of the team over this literally massive discovery is palatable throughout Dinosaur 13, and the particular emotional attachment of most of the BHI crew (especially Peter) is obvious and often quite affecting. After digging the newly-named “Sue” (after Hendrickson) out of the bluff, paying a staggering five thousand dollars to the owner of the land she was found on, hauling her to the institute, the BHI team set to work readying her for showing in their soon-to-be-museum. For the Larsons, it was a dream come true, for tiny Hill City, it seemed to be paving the way for much-needed economic help and admirable notoriety.
It never happened. While Dinosaur 13 meanders for its first act or so, appearing to be a simple (if inspiring) story about human dreams and dinosaur deaths, the film makes a swift change in its second act. The long-looming “bad ending” begins to come to fruition on a seemingly regular day (described in the same meticulous way as the day of Sue’s discovery was), and Dinosaur 13 spirals outward into a jaw-dropping tale about legal complexities, basic greed, and political machinations.
While Miller certainly has a compelling story on his hands, and Dinosaur 13 has more than enough material and players to paw through, the film is bogged down with an overabundance of both unnecessary material and players. Filled with talking heads that add little to the actual story at hand, Dinosaur 13 too often strays from the meat and emotion of its story, bogging down the entire thing and detracting from its power. Despite crowding the screen with side stories and other people, the film is unable to answer some basic questions about the continually wrenching and confounding story of Sue and the Larsons. Perhaps those answers don’t actually exist, but instead of driving that point home, Miller muddies about his narrative and tries to talk over it with more experts, more small reactions, and more recycled shots.
Sue herself may fit together in a way that makes sense and educates her admirers, but Dinosaur 13 is missing more than a few necessary bones, no matter how stunning its story may be.
The Upside: A fascinating and complex story about a very compelling topic, appropriately captures the emotion of the story, packed with surprises.
The Downside: Overstuffed with too many talking heads and often unnecessary recreated material, leaves many questions unanswered, would benefit from a far tighter focus.
On the Side: Sue the T. Rex is 42 feet long from snout to tail and 13 feet tall at the hip, and her skull alone weighs 600 pounds.