Mad scientists tampering with Jurassic DNA might be tearing up the box office right now, but for a truly upsetting dino-drama you can’t go past the fossil-driven frustration of documentary Dinosaur 13. The discovery of the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever unearthed is the impetus along a rocky road of career highs and crushing lows for the paleontologists responsible.
In the 1990s, a team of enthusiastic archaeologists discovered the well-persevered remains of a T Rex they would come to name Sue (for amateur paleontologist Susan Hendrickson, who was first on the scene) in South Dakota. After a vigorous excavation effort it would turn out Sue was 80 per-cent intact – the most compete example of the dinosaur yet discovered. It’s a significant coup for the members of the Black Hill Institute, a small-town fossil discovery and retail outlet behind the find.
The film gets up close and personal with paleontologist brothers Peter and Neal Larson, founders members of the Black Hill Institute, and heroes in their home of Hill City for the attention the Sue discovery brings to the tiny town of about 550 people. Director Todd Douglas Miller arranges home video footage and talking-head interviews to show the herculean effort that went into excavating Sue, and the boundless regard the brother’s and their team have toward their important discovery.
But the picture of professional passion quickly goes sour when, seemingly out of nowhere, the federal government, assisted by the National Guard, swoops in to confiscate Sue from her discoverers. The apparent disproportionate show of force from the feds is met with a rolling protest by the loyal townsfolk and significant national press coverage. So begins a custody battle that will play out over years and leave a fair few lives shattered in its wake.
The turmoil springs from disputes over ownership of the land where Sue was dug up. The documentary footage initially suggests the archaeologists paid $5000 for the fossil to the owner of the ranch on which they were digging, one Maurice Williams. But once the significance of the find becomes clear, a number of different stories begin to emerge that conspire to separate Sue and her doting excavators – Williams claims never to have sold the fossil, the government says it owns the land, and a native American tribe also claims ownership to the property and fossil.
While story itself is a compelling yarn, complete with courtroom drama, jail time, a record-setting auction, and an appropriately bittersweet dénouement, in key aspects the film fails to do it justice. The primary problem is the audience only ever gets one side of the story; members of the Black Hills Institute are clearly set up as the underdog protagonists being screwed by forces far above their weight level. However, we are never privy to the viewpoint of a vilified Maurice Williams, nor is the government’s intricate legal case given much play, and the indigenous issues are brushed aside with patronising brevity.
The film gets hooks into the audience for sure; you’ll never come closer to understanding the love a paleontologist can feel towards a fossil than this tale of Peter Larson, and his friend Sue. Watching the T Rex ripped from his grasp in such a bullying way is outright heart-breaking, and the depths to which the governmental harassment sinks is outrageous. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a bit more craft behind the actual documentary-making, as the story is fascinating enough that it need not be so baldly manipulative. The saga of Sue deserves an even-handed, balanced look.
Article originally published on Gamefreaks.co.nz