Dinosaur 13

Documentary about the discovery of the largest T-Rex fossil found.


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  • ★★★½ review by Devon Seltzer on Letterboxd

    Thanks to my mom, my love of learning was cemented early on. She taught me to read at a very young age, showed me plenty of nature and history documentaries and most importantly of all, took me to a lot of museums. This also cemented my love of dinosaurs which lingers to this day. I remember staring up at the towering fossils in the Natural History Museum, the smell of polish and dust lingering in the air and imagining what these creatures would look like with muscle, sinew and skin. One thing I never thought about was the trip that these relics had to take to arrive in their displays. This is one of the central points of Dinosaur 13, whose title refers to the thirteenth Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton discovered, and the first almost complete specimen. However, it isn't just a story of discovery, as the ownership of the fossil quickly became a massive and dramatic legal battle within the US court system.

    The film does a good job balancing the legal and scientific aspects of the story, giving plenty of insight into the minutia of paleontology before delving into the legal issues. However, like too many documentaries, this one only presents the story from one perspective, that of the diggers, leaving everyone else to be faceless, voiceless villains. The people who discovered the fossil may in fact have been in the right as the doc suggests, however, I don't feel right stating that with only the one-sided argument presented here.

    Speaking of presentation, this film takes what is a fascinating story and displays it in the most pedestrian way possible. There is nothing wrong with being a standard issue talking heads documentary, but it really seems like director Todd Douglas Miller had no ambition at all with this project, turning in what feels like a basic, made for TV outing, complete with reenactments and long fades to black tailor made for commercial breaks. I sound really down on Dinosaur 13, but I did find myself absorbed throughout its run time, I just wish they had given this story the treatment it deserved by presenting in it a more robust, well-rounded way.

    Despite its subject, this is sadly not the king of documentaries.

  • ★★★½ review by Daniel Kibbe on Letterboxd

    I've had an immense interest in paleontology and archaeology since I was very young. I'd seen the fossil that is the subject of this film, but was unaware of the unbelievable story surrounding its finding and the repurcussions of discovery. Dinosaur 13 is a remarkable and engrossing documentary about one of the greatest scientific finds of all time as well as one of the most absurd criminal court cases I've heard of. This film excellently covers both the legal and scientific sections of the story, piquing political intrest as well as paleontological. Highly recommended.

  • ★★★½ review by Juan Bacaro on Letterboxd

    Desgarrador documental, aunque tal vez un poco sensiblero. Impresiona tanto el descubrimiento como la decepción.

    Debo confesar que no conocía este relato. Posiblemente sea la única historia sobre un dinosaurio decomisado por el FBI.

    Y eso no es todo. Más allá del peso científico y las reflexiones sobre el poder y las fisuras en la ley, queda como anécdota que todo este asunto sucedió mientras Spielberg creaba lo que sería una de las películas-empresa más importantes de su carrera. La que precisamente tiene dinosaurios como protagonistas.

    Para echarle ojo! Gigante entretenimiento y un importante documento para la posteridad sobre el infinito magnetismo que sentimos hacia nuestro pasado jurásico.

    ¿Qué hubiera hecho Indiana Jones en una situación como esta?

  • ★★★½ review by Bob Hovey on Letterboxd

    Science, government, commerce and greed clash in the tale of Sue, at the time the largest and most complete T. Rex fossil ever found. While technically a documentary the film clearly takes the side of Pete Larson, professional fossil hunter and leader of the team who unearthed Sue. It's a fairly complex story that follows several parties in the conflict over ownership and as such is extremely interesting if a bit overlong. Still, given the fascinating subject and the passion of those involved, "Dinosaur 13" does a fairly good job of holding our interest and eliciting our concern for Sue's ultimate fate.

  • ★★★★ review by Jack Moulton on Letterboxd

    In 1990 palaeontologist Pete Larson and his team excavated the 13th T-Rex skeleton discovered so far. It was the largest and most complete specimen yet. Todd Douglas Miller’s Dinosaur 13, which premiered at Sundance, explores the consequences of those involved with the dinosaur nicknamed “Sue” as the FBI seized her bones because of ownership disputes, where they sat in storage for nearly 10 years.

    It’s a film that belongs in a ‘thriller documentary’ subgenre that’s emerged in the past few years with films such as Man On Wire, The Imposter and Blackfish. They’re emotionally charged examinations of tragic events and their use of tension is often enthralling. Bias or not, they make for terrific cinema. For its whiplash style, personal elements and condemnation of injustice, Dinosaur 13 is the Dear Zachary of DinoDocs, if not quite as overwhelming.

    The first 25 minutes are the highlight and ostensibly the high point of everyone’s lives before things got complicated. It documents the discovery and extraction of Sue with stunningly convenient archive footage shot at the time to paint a vivid picture. The palpable excitement of the scientists is contagious. Everyone has an intimate relationship with Sue. It captures the urgency of palaeontology as they justify that nature deteriorates fossils, which is something rarely considered. The doc wraps you up in the race to uncover Earth’s past.

    However, the film struggles to focus on a particular person, even though it ends up on Pete Larson. He’s rarely a figure of discussion until the last part of the documentary. But even though it’s so scattered, it exudes the camaraderie of the fossil enthusiasts from experts to amateurs. It’s wonderful to watch the whole town of Black Hills come and see Sue’s skull with a sense of wonder.

    As director Miller builds and builds this joy, it’s painful to watch when doom inevitably comes crashing down. They even have footage of the FBI and protestors shaming them, including children. It feels Spielberg-esque in line with E.T.’s crisis. But its sentiment does not come cheaply, despite teary-eyed interviews. The film is very thick and fast with its events, giving as much exposition as possible with quick text onscreen. Sometimes too quick to digest, but you get a feel for it.

    The portrait of injustice that Miller paints is infuriating, and he evidently has an anti-Government bias due to this situation. The film has been criticised for its manipulation in this regard, but in documentary filmmaking that’s part and parcel. Yes, it does try and wring sympathy for the scientists and you could argue that it’s not earned, but that’s not what engages me. It illuminates a devastating folly of man that we can’t work together for progress and it’s all about claim to fame.

    It develops into a grand custody battle of who owns Sue between Native American Reservations, Maurice Williams a man who bought the bones originally, the Government, and those who found her. The latter take the hardest punch. The film becomes a courtroom drama as they’re accused of theft and multitude of crimes due to doing business with something that they didn’t know they couldn’t claim. There are horrific technicalities that make your blood boil and the film is constantly acknowledging the ridiculous nature of it all.

    It’s a wilfully abrasive film, peculiar as its events folded not 15 years ago and it’s all over something that’s already millions of years old. It’s attractively shot in the interviews and short re-enactments, although its low budget shows in those moments. Granted, that just reveals Miller’s creativity on set. Perhaps it could’ve slowed down the pace a few times just to feel more in the moment or to get closer to its subjects, but with such ground to cover I can see why it’s so eager. The cinematic score with violins makes it feel like a blockbuster treat, with a little reference to The Assassination of Jesse James by its close.Dinosaur 13 is an engrossing doc with a big achy heart.



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