REVIEW: Dinosaur 13 [2014]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: August 15th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: CNN Films / Lionsgate / The Film Arcade
Director(s): Todd Douglas Miller

“Any tampering with this scene is a federal violation and will be prosecuted”

It’s crazy how something so genuine in its scientific potential to find answers about our world and fiscal assistance to a small South Dakotan town can be warped and twisted into a sideshow of legal folly. Director Todd Douglas Miller has taken the wonder of what the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research did in unearthing the most complete skeletal remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found and the flabbergasting fallout courtesy of ownership claims and the government’s greed to profit off the work of scientists and wrapped it all up into an engrossing historical document that will leave you simultaneously in awe and sick to your stomach. What should be the subject of unparalleled discovery, the tale of Dinosaur 13—or “Sue”—becomes a cautionary parable proving how laws cannot solely be a stark black or white.

All I knew about the film’s story was that it told the saga of the most famous fossil ever unearthed. So the opening twenty minutes providing the adventure of young “amateurs” riding into the South Dakotan desert to find a dig grander than they could imagine fit the scholarly tone I anticipated. We watch as 1990s Susan Hendrickson stumbles across bone fragments and the promise of so much more while 2014 Susan recalls her mindset at the time. In comes the Black Hills trio of Peter Larson, Neal Larson, and Bob Farrar along with the quartet’s friend Terry Wentz and they toil for days chipping and brushing away dirt until all the dinosaur’s bones are found. Peter hands a check for five grand to land owner Maurice Williams, packages her up, and rides back to Hill City.

It’s here where things unravel. Miller sprinkles in a little intrigue here and there with interviews foreshadowing the chaos to come, but I simply believed it would deal with internal strife amongst the paleontological group or a play for more money on behalf of Williams. Never did I expect a swarm of thirty-five FBI agents and the National Guard knocking on Black Hills’ door to seize every last piece of “Sue” along with anything else they could find that may deal with her as well. A shocking development that not only destroyed the Larson brother’s hearts, this governmental theft rocked the community into protest and the media to travel in droves to find out what was happening. While the whole thing seems absurd on the surface, however, it proves down right certifiably insane once you dig deeper.

And this is where the meat of the story rises to the surface. Dinosaur 13 soon becomes less about the brilliant discovery at its center and more about the ugliness of humanity. Archaic laws come into play dealing with the arbitrary contracts segmenting much of the state into small squares of bureaucratic red tape where one section is starkly different than its neighbor. Power plays of ownership introduce themselves over a year into the restoration process of private citizens with video documentation corroborating their story that strip the men and women who found “Sue” of any claims they thought they had. Here are bona fide scientists ready to bring the world something it’s never seen and they’re shutout by a maliciously greedy opportunist and their own country’s desire to get a cut of the inevitable profits.

Realizing they don’t have legal claim on the fossil ultimately incites the government to be even more ruthless in seeking what else Black Hills might be hiding underneath the auspices of science to steal, tax, or strong-arm out a profit. The ensuing decade-long battle is a devastating experience to witness onscreen; the pain felt through those embroiled in its nonsense unfathomable to comprehend. It’s a disgusting display of cowardly tactics quickly taking the form of personal vendettas rather than attempts at upholding the law. And each second spent in the courtroom doubles as another second “Sue” remains crated in boxes away from a public clamoring to see and study her. What do her emancipators earn for their trouble? The combination of one hundred and forty-nine indictments with possibly over three hundred plus years in prison, that’s what.

There are a lot of moving parts to the ordeal that Miller expertly weaves together for a captivating story possessing more suspense than its talking head format normally allows. He makes sure to not only deliver the Black Hills gang’s side of the story, but also that of the lawyers, IRS, and experts involved whether directly or indirectly, for or against. Sadly, when David goes up against Goliath in the real world, even the victories arrive at a price much steeper than morality should allow. Dinosaur 13 turns into an exposé on government corruption, convolutedly one-sided ownership claims, real estate technicalities, and grudges to save face no matter the collateral damage created in the process. It’s a tragic tale that sheds light on the friction between political and scholarly spheres and how money will always be more important than enlightenment.

At the end of the day, “Sue” is on display in her full glory. Whether she’s residing where she should under the watchful eyes of those who found her or somewhere far away under the care of philanthropists with profit margins is for the movie to explain. Some will staunchly defend the Larsons and those who helped them while others will see their actions as those of people flagrantly ignoring rules and regulations no matter the veracity to pleas of ignorance. The truth lies somewhere in between, though—a murky spot where intent, fact, and assumption mix together until you can no longer see where one begins and the next ends. It’s a shame to know the governing body we elect continually fails to look out its electorate’s best interests unless it also reaps its own rewards in the process.

[1] Susan Hendrickson in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s DINOSAUR 13.
[2] Peter Larson in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s DINOSAUR 13.
[3] Peter Larson, Susan Hendrickson and team in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s DINOSAUR 13.

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