Dinosaur 13

Dinosaur 13 (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Dinosaur 13,” a documentary directed by Todd Douglas Miller, is not really about a dinosaur in its core but about how the government can exercise its power to the fullest extent. As the picture unfolds, I could not help but imagine a sadistic kid finding an anthill in his backyard and torturing the bugs not because he is curious but simply because he can.

The film chronicles the events that began in 1990 when Dr. Pete Larson and his fellow paleontologists unearthed the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex in the Ruth Mason Quarry in South Dakota. Months after the great discovery, FBI agents and the National Guard took the fossils away from the scientists, claiming they had stolen the remnants from federal land.

The strongest segments of the film come in the form of recorded videos from over twenty years ago. We see the campsite of the paleontologists, we observe the site of the digging, we survey how hands handle the rubble and the sorts of tools employed to be as careful as possible in order to preserve the T. rex prior to transport. Once out of the field, we get a feeling of how special the discovery must be to the local people not only in terms of how they look at the dinosaur—later named Sue—but how angry they are when officials arrive and drive away with the great find.

Once politics enter the equation, I watched the film in disbelief. So-called serious claims presented at the time are so petty—a certain region of the state having a set of rules and another region having yet another set of rules but only slightly different but enough to get someone in really big trouble. In retrospect, I think—and I believe it is one of the points the filmmaker tries to make—that the whole debacle over who gets to keep the dinosaur remains and who gets punishment is a gigantic embarrassment on the government’s part.

Imagine having this wonderful discovery and instead of everybody having a chance to celebrate it, a positive thing becomes embroiled in a debate over ownership. One cannot help but feel sorry for the paleontologists whose names have become forever a part of an unnecessary circus. Did it not occur to the parties responsible for the madness that if it were not for Dr. Larson and his team, the remains would not have been discovered at that time, possibly having unearthed to this day?

If life forms from the future would like to learn about humans that have gone extinct and happened to see this movie, they would likely laugh at our species. The movie is about a failing—a failing to recognize the big picture. It is also about power and entitlement, perhaps the ugliest personification comes in the form of a judge who gave in to his emotions rather than doing what he knows is right.

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