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Film Review: 'Dinosaur 13' Documentary Millions Of Years In The Making

Courtesy Dogwoof Pictures

Prior to 1990, scientists had unearthed only twelve Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons, none of them more than 40 percent complete. In August of that year, Sue – the titular T. rex in the riveting new documentary Dinosaur 13– changed everything.

The film opens with grainy home-movie footage from summer of 1990 in the Badlands of South Dakota, where a team of archeologists and paleontologists have just seen an alluring bone in the side of a rocky hill. It’s thrilling to watch them chip and whisk away at the earth, eventually revealing one tooth, then a row of them, then the massive jaw that holds them. Months later, the work results in an unprecedented finding: a T. rex skeleton up to 80 percent complete.

Maurice Williams, who owns the land where Sue was discovered, gets paid a paltry $5,000 before scientists delicately move her remains to the Black Hills Institute. There, the team begins a more intensive restoration that must be done out of the elements. One otherwise uneventful morning, the scientists show up to work and are greeted by a group of FBI agents, their workplace surrounded by crime tape. According to federal authorities, Sue had been embedded in tribal land and is now the biggest and oldest kidnapping victim in history.

With Sue now the property of the government, the story grows ever more sinuous and bizarre before it results in criminal trials, debates about the academic recovery of fossils versus their commercialization, and an auction at Sotheby’s, where Sue is bestowed the kind of treatment afforded a Monet or a Warhol. Director Todd Douglas Miller tells a story that's both baffling and infuriating. By the end, many people have been hurt and betrayed, while Sue, bearing that ancient grin, majestically and mutely looks on.

Dinosaur 13 | Dir. Todd Douglas Miller | 95 min. The movie will be screened on Tuesday, November 11, 6 - 10 pm at Cinetopia 18, 5725 W. 135th St., Overland Park, Kan., 913-402-9300. Peter Larson, one of the main characters in the film, will be flying in for the screening and will participate in a Q & A after the show. Admission is $15, or free to Museum at Prairie members. More information here

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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