Sundance Review: DINOSAUR 13

A fairly bleak movie about the discovery of the best T-Rex skeleton ever.

"If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever."

That’s George Orwell kind of predicting the events of Dinosaur 13. What begins as an ode to the joy of fossil hunting and the magic of the discovery of the biggest and most complete T-Rex skeleton in history quickly turns into the tale of how some down home Alan Grants were hounded and systematically destroyed by the federal government over the course of a decade.

Sue is the T-Rex that starts it all off, a magnificent specimen estimated to be about 80% complete (it's the 13th largely complete T-Rex discovered, hence the title of the movie). History in the remaking. The group that discovers the fossil is made up of paleontological types who are anything but academics - they’re commercial hunters, selling dinosaur bones to the highest bidders. But they’re not money-hungry jerks; they dream of creating a dinosaur-centered natural history museum in the Black Hills of South Dakota, one of the hottest fossil spots in the country. Sue will be the centerpiece of that museum.

Then one day the FBI shows up. With the National Guard in tow. They seize Sue, claiming she was taken from government land illegally. And as that case plays itself out, the authorities launch a bigger probe, looking to nail these lovable dino-freaks on violations of the Antiquities Act and money laundering and conspiracy and a bunch of other stuff that seems too crazy to believe.

And the hits keep coming. Neal Larson, the central figure of the story, comes across as an optimistic David who is fucking slaughtered by the Goliath of the IRS, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal court system. As Dinosaur 13 goes on Larson’s story redefines the term Kafka-esque.

This is an extraordinary - if kind of depressing - story. Unfortunately the film itself doesn’t ever rise to that same level; filled with standard talking-head stuff and goofy recreations. The movie raises some interesting questions about the ethical difference between commercial dinosaur hunters and academic ones, but then it fails to truly examine the different sides. The question isn’t simply about snobby Ivory Tower intellectuals versus rugged individualists, and Dinosaur 13 - a movie that almost wallows in Larson’s misery - could have used more of that grey area.

There’s no doubt that the story of Sue and the way the federal government all but ground Neal Larson into paste is a complex, fascinating and even important one. I just wish the filmmakers behind Dinosaur 13 had found a more compelling way to tell it. This is a film that will make for excellent VOD semi-distracted viewing.