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Underneath all of its dry paleontological information and labyrinthine legal details, Dinosaur 13 tells the tragic love story between a team of scientists and a dinosaur. It starts with a stunning discovery made by The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a modest paleontological organization located in a tiny South Dakotan town. In 1990, paleontologist Peter Larson and his team stumble upon the largest fossil of a T-Rex ever discovered. Beyond ecstatic about this discovery, the team spends innumerable hours restoring the fossil and putting it back together.
Eventually, the team gradually become intimately attached to the dinosaur they nicknamed Sue, after paleontologist Susan Hendrickson who found the fossil. However, their excitement and hard work turns into a bureaucratic nightmare when the federal government not only seizes Sue, claiming that the dig was done on government property, but also sues (No pun intended) Larson and his team for trespassing onto said property. Via vintage footage from the case, contemporary interviews and some reenactments, Dinosaur 13 tells the frustrating battle between the government and The Black Hills Institute for Sue's custody.
Without getting bogged down in childishly simplistic conservative talking points about the evils of big government, Dinosaur 13 presents a compelling argument about the dangers of government overreach, while also constructing a loving tribute to the wonders of paleontology. The most effective sequence in the film comes near the beginning, where Peter Larson describes digging for fossils under the stars as being surrounded by millions of years of history. After the many baffling decisions made by the government screws over our scientists, Dinosaur 13 settles into a third act straight out of a political thriller, with an almost-Hitchcockian finale centering on a vital auction.
Dinosaur 13 is strictly a one-sided experience. If you watch it looking for federal government's side of the story, you've come to the wrong place. In that sense, it's more of a visual essay than a truly objective doc. However, I don't know the details about the film's production so it's highly likely that no one from the government agreed to be interviewed.
Most of Dinosaur 13 utilizes amateur video footage from the early 90s, as well as animated photographs from that era. It's highly understandable that the vintage video footage is borderline unwatchable, with practically every video noise issues known to humankind. However, pretty much all of that footage is vital in telling the complete story so they get an easy pass. The interviews are shot with the predictable HD digital cinematography of recent documentaries. They look clean and crisp. Overall, this is a solid 1080p transfer that shows some aliasing and banding issues, but not enough to hinder the experience.
Since we're dealing with a documentary, not much power should be expected from the DTS-HD 5.1 audio presentation of Dinosaur 13. The interviews mostly come clean out of the center speakers, the subdued score occasionally livens things up, but the focus here is educational and informational, not sensationalism.
Deleted Scenes: Four minutes of scenes taken out of the film, probably for pacing issues. There isn't really anything interesting here.
The Continuing Story of Sue: I probably don't have to remind you not to watch this 18-minute featurette before watching the film, since it spoils where Sue ended up. It's a very interesting mini-documentary about Sue's current home.
Fossil Whales of Peru: The title says it all. A five-minute amateur documentary about fossil whales, perhaps made by Peter Larson.
Complete Auction of Sue: The uncut video footage of the auction. It was edited perfectly in the film, so this is kind of unnecessary.
How to Build a Dinosaur: A two-minute montage of shots from The Black Hills Institute.
Far from a revolutionary documentary, Dinosaur 13 nevertheless provides an interesting story about how individuals passionate about their work can be screwed over by those with unbridled power and ambition. It comes especially highly recommended to paleontology aficionados.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com