Dinosaur 13: Review – Sundance 2014

By Derek Ruth · January 18, 2014

In the last few days I have often thought about time and how we make use of it. At 5:30 AM on Thursday we drove out of Los Angeles; roughly twelve hours later we arrived in the new world of Park City for Sundance. During our first full day here, I watched my experience of time expand and constrict. A morning flies by thanks to an engrossing film screening; ten minutes during the evening rush hour become an eternity when they represent a delay to making an event at the Prospector Square Theatre on time. One five-minute interaction can change the course of an attendee’s entire festival journey. Even Sundance’s 11-day duration represents the culmination of a year’s worth of planning and programming. The list goes on.

Whatever measurement you want to apply to our day-to-day existence, the length of all humanity appears infinitesimally small compared to the lifetime of our planet and the epoch of the dinosaurs roaming it millions of years ago. How we make sense of our mortality and find meaning within our brief lives is the subject matter of Dinosaur 13, a remarkable documentary that will make you root for paleontology and small town dreams in the face of bureaucracy and greed – and will enlighten you on why million-year-old bones can mean so much.

The “13” of the title refers to the distinction of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever discovered. Preserved miraculously on a remote hill in South Dakota, the dinosaur remains were unearthed in 1990, thanks to a chance discovery by Susan Hendrickson, who gave the T. Rex its name, “Sue.” A team of passionate paleontologists led by Peter Larson proceeded to extract Sue over the course of three days, eventually finding that 80% of the dinosaur was intact. They gave a check of $5,000 to landowner Maurice Williams and enthusiastically carted Sue to their Black Hills Institute in nearby Hill City. Over the following two years they diligently brought Sue into her full glory; Terry Wintz described the monk-like focus and end result of restoring the skull as the high point of his life. The Black Hills paleontologists, fronted by Peter, hoped the astonishing find would put the Institute on the map and ensure prosperity for the town.

Those dreams came crashing down in the form of a surprise government seizure, during which dozens of FBI agents descended on the Institute and proceeded to take Sue, piece by piece, while claiming that the paleontologists deliberately stole federal property. In one of the film’s frequent uses of real VHS home footage, the many children of Hill City protest the agents, rhyming Sue’s name with “Shame on you!” In the days, then weeks, then years that follow, shock turns to disappointment and anger, as the dinosaur stays boxed up in a university warehouse miles away while legal nightmares consume the Black Hill dreams. Depicted in reenactments, Peter makes a regular pilgrimage to ensure that Sue is still safe, because as one interviewee states without a trace of cynicism, “Peter was in love with that dinosaur.”

It is appropriate, then, that Dinosaur 13 encourages us to love Sue as much as the people who found and preserved her. Todd Douglas Miller directs and edits a piece that alternately enthralls, enrages, and uplifts, from the initial mystery of the dinosaur to the exciting process of bringing this rare specimen to jurassic life, and finally the court-room battle and auction room suspense of later years. Interviews with the majority of the key players are remarkably candid and unforced, allowing us to see the passion and joy that define these men and women as much more than mere rock and bone collectors. In sweeping panoramic vistas and time-lapse shots of the star-filled skies, complemented by a grandiose score, the narrative continually reminds us of the universe’s long duration and humanity’s astonishingly brief time in comparison. The ego-driven and money-hungry motives of the antagonists ultimately come into focus as a basic misunderstanding of our limited duration on this planet; the paleontologists’ philosophy, to honor our past by preserving it, becomes profound through its tireless expression.

In the end, I will remember my automatic gasp at the first full glimpse of the Tyrannosaurus rex skull, still half-submerged in the earth, surrounded by the beaming smiles of the paleontologists who only wanted to honor it. Dinosaur 13 also imbues a deeper appreciation of their profession and the challenges inherent within. In the first documentary sale of this year’s Sundance, it has now been picked up by CNN Films and Lionsgate, fitting for its own combination of from-the-headlines drama and near-unbelievable pathos. The film reminds us that our time is best spent honoring that which we love, and that even if the greater world throws us obstacles that threaten to steal our joy, we must go searching for the next dinosaur.