Ask just about any of its interview subjects, and Dinosaur 13 is a story of clear-cut injustice—a case of the U.S. government trampling on the rights and historic accomplishments of an intrepid group of scientists. The film begins in 1990, with the discovery of an almost completely intact Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the Badlands of South Dakota. “Sue,” which the paleontologists purchased from the owner of the land, was to become the star attraction of the local Black Hills Institute, a museum that specializes in dinosaur remains. Two years later, however, the FBI stormed the premises without warning, seizing the fossilized specimen. And when the Black Hills team sued to get Sue back, the diggers found themselves under full investigation—dire straits that led to a long list of charges and, subsequently, to one member of the team, Peter Larson, doing time in federal prison.
Certainly, it all looks like a David and Goliath situation, in which powerful bigwigs put the legal hit on the plucky professionals who dared oppose them. But the one-sided Dinosaur 13, partially based on Larson’s nonfiction book Rex Appeal, has more outrage than cogent reasoning. The movie would rather play a tiny violin for its subjects—perhaps literally, given the gratingly manipulative score—than objectively untangle the legality of what one talking head dubiously describes as its “brilliant story.”
There’s a genuine and somewhat moving affection here for the grunt work of paleontology, and it’s hard not to feel something for the scientists who lost the fruit of their labor to complicated land laws. But not content merely treating the paleontologists like heroic crusaders, director Todd Douglas Miller identifies a few villains, none more ostensibly detestable than landowner Maurice Williams, who took the $5,000 check the team offered for Sue and then later claimed the fossils were stolen. (He actually didn’t have the right to sell anything off the property, as it was being held in trust for him by the U.S. government.) Miller doesn’t talk to Williams, who admittedly may have denied him an interview; he also doesn’t appear to press Larson and company as to why they didn’t put this enormous transaction on paper. One of them claims early on that a handshake seemed sufficient, but the fact that Sue later sold for $8.3 million casts their motives under some suspicion.
Nor does Miller dig much into the allegations made against Larson, which included deliberately stepping onto private property to secure fossils and failing to note on customs documents the large sums of money he brought into foreign countries. No doubt the man’s two-year prison sentence was cruel and unusual, but Dinosaur 13 largely leaves discussion of the charges to Rex Appeal co-author Kristin Donnan, who dismisses them as a catchall attempt to nail him with something. She could be right. She’s also Larson’s wife, which may have some influence over her interpretation of the evidence.
If there was any doubt as to where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie, it’s obliterated by Dinosaur 13’s wistful treatment of its true love story—the one between discoverer and discovery. Larson’s mother goes as far as stating that her son is literally in love with Sue, while Donnan rather candidly admits that the dead dinosaur is more important to him than any of the people in his life. Miller underlines these sentiments by including shots of Larson gazing longingly into the building where Sue has been boxed up and stored, and romanticizes them by ticking off the days of her “sentence”—a strategy that conflates the skeleton’s fate with that of the man who dug it up. Today, Sue resides at Chicago’s Field Museum Of Natural History, having been auctioned off to a bidder who insisted it be displayed in front of a large audience. Larson and his people, who claim early on that they want Sue “available to everyone,” lament that she didn’t end up in South Dakota. But wouldn’t the reconstructed behemoth draw more eyes in Chicago? Dinosaur 13 reduces a complicated legal quagmire about paleontological ownership to something of a pity party. But hard luck is not the same as injustice.