Ever since Jurassic Park exploded into the imaginations of kids everywhere in ‘93, there hasn’t been another film since that has sparked the same interest in our large, scaley (or feathery) friends, the dinosaurs. Not even Spielberg himself with JP’s sequel, The Lost World, could match the same fervent love for Raptors and Tyrannosaurs that the original inspired. That is, until now; Dinosaur
South Dakota, 1990. Paleontologist Pete Larson and his team discover the largest complete T-Rex skeleton ever found. The skeleton’s nickname: ‘Sue’. Their plans to display the fossil for all to see are quickly thwarted by the arrival of the federal government, who close down the town and take the dinosaur away. What ensues is a ten-year long battle to reclaim Sue, including head-scratching grapples with Native Indian land laws, the FBI’s controlling policies, and Maurice Williams – the man whose land the Rex was discovered on – and his sinister ulterior motives. At the heart of the swirling chaos of legalities and trivialities is Larson himself, yearning not just for the discovery of a lifetime that was cruelly snatched from his hands, but for the loss of a newfound friend.
Not enough credit can be given to Todd Douglas Miller, who directs Dinosaur 13 with alternating blends of mystery, humour and pathos in each moment. His documentary is hewn from hours and hours of revealing archive footage and emotional interviews with those affected, much in the same way that Larson excavated his dino from the Dakota earth; with utmost precision, care, and a grace that leaves every piece even more enthralling than the last as it emerges from the ground. That there is so much dense material to wade through – which could probably fuel another documentary all by itself – may have been mush in another director’s hand, here Miller never loses focus on the human struggle.
Even if it’s making time to have a tasteful dramatisation of Larson sitting outside the compound in which Sue is imprisoned, talking through the window to her, or the rousing score (a simple motif that grows emotionally through the film’s course) placed at perfect moments, Miller takes the time to establish an arc. But these are not examples of callous audience manipulation; Dinosaur 13 is very much a case of being asked to come to our own conclusions, and then complementing that experience – not vice versa.
There are sequences in Sue’s story that genuinely feel as if they’ve been stripped from cinema. Most notable is when the government roll into town, militarising Larson and his team’s workshop and the surrounding area in what is essentially an overblown, legalised theft. It’s something straight from Super 8, or indeed any of Steven Spielberg’s earlier movies; while the tale comes feeling readymade for cinema, the film never clutches the coattails of the events’ bare bones (ahem). Instead, it delves headfirst into the courtroom tribulations and the indignant moral struggles that define it, and raises some serious questions about how the entire affair was – and still is – handled.
When we inevitably come to the flooring final shot, one thing becomes crystal-clear; this astonishing relic has travelled sixty-five millions years through time, all to be compromised by the pettiness of humans, and not celebrated by their good points. We see much of both sides in Dinosaur 13.