A great documentary needs a cracking good story or idea at the heart of it, and filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller hit a goldmine when he started to look into the story of a dinosaur named Sue. Probably the most famous fossil in the world, Sue is the most complete tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found. That in itself should make for an interesting documentary, but behind Sue comes one of the most unusual legal cases in U.S. history, and one that posed a very complicated question - exactly who does a 65 million year old fossil belong to?
At the time, Sue was the thirteenth T-Rex skeleton to be discovered, hence the provocatively titled ‘Dinosaur 13’. The film begins straight away with the discover of the skeleton in the badlands of South Dakota in 1990 by a team of palaeontologists from the Black Hill Institute. The team, headed by Peter Larson, excavated the skeleton and moved it to the institute, nicknaming it “Sue” after Susan Hendrickson who found the fossil. After two years of work on the fossil though - the most unexpected of events occur when the FBI and the National Guard arrive with significant force and confiscate the skeleton and all the research pertaining to it. Suddenly the modest institute and its skeleton become embroiled in a massive legal battle over who ultimately owns Sue, quickly spiralling out of control.
'DINOSAUR 13' TRAILER
It’s an absolutely cracking story, and because the case caught the public imagination at the time, Miller has a tremendous amount of archival material at his disposal. To tell the story of Sue, we hear from all the key players still alive from every side of the argument, with a particular focus on the scientists at the Black Kill Institute. At the heart of it is Peter Larson, who grew an almost romantic attachment to the skeleton and who became the patsy in an enormous investigation by the FBI into the dealings and workings of the institute. As a piece of filmmaking, ‘Dinosaur 13’ is classic documentary filmmaking, forgoing the kind of tools used by filmmakers by Alex Gibney and instead letting his talking heads tell the story. As a piece of editing, it’s elegantly constructed, and moves at a terrific pace. Miller lets the story unfold like the best of storytellers, each twist and turn perfectly placed. The story of Sue is an epic one, and as each piece of the puzzle falls into place, it only becomes more ridiculous and unbelievable. There are flashes of dramatisation here and there that feel a little unnecessary and out of place, but in general Miller doesn’t miss a beat with this enthralling film.
As a piece of filmmaking, ‘Dinosaur 13’ is classic documentary filmmaking.
What on first glance looks like a companion piece to ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’ ends up being something far more human and emotional. ‘Dinosaur 13’ captures the essential joy of palaeontology and the people who work for the preservation of our prehistoric past, as well as the quagmire of legal complications that come with it. And at the centre of it is Sue, a beast long-dead but perhaps one of the most important scientific discoveries of our time. One look at her, and you certainly understand what all the fuss is about.
PICTURE & SOUND
Madman have only released ‘Dinosaur 13’ on DVD, but with so much of the archival material coming from home video and network news footage from the early 90s, high definition would only make the image marginally better. It’s an excellent transfer with great detail and awash with golden desert colours. It’s also in 2.35:1, an unusual aspect ratio for a documentary, but Miller’s choice certainly makes it feel a tad more epic. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is nice and clear, though the score can occasionally throw out the balance withe the dialogue.
There are a few choice extras on offer here. ‘How To Build A Dinosaur’ is a short time-lapse showing the team at Black Hill preparing and constructing a dinosaur skeleton, and the work that goes into it. A series of deleted scenes add further detail to the story, some of which could easily have been included in the main feature. Lastly is the excellent theatrical trailer that easily does its job at pulling you in.