Paleontologists are part discoverers, part detectives. After the digging, the more difficult work lies in extrapolating meaning from the remains.
Todd Douglas Miller’s Dinosaur 13 does half the job, excavating the ribs and joints of a story of how a team of paleontologists, led by Peter Larson, made an enormous find in 1990 — the most complete T. rex skeleton ever discovered, nicknamed “Sue” — and then had their lives derailed by private back-dealing and government interference. Sue, we learn, was discovered on disputed land, and was later confiscated by the feds.
Unfortunately, Dinosaur 13 never manages to display the story’s many complex parts in a way that enables viewers to grasp the whole beast, since it conflates Sue’s travails with a second legal battle, muddying the motivation behind each. Soon after the confiscation, the government charged the paleontologists with a cascade of prior criminal behavior unrelated to Sue’s discovery (Larson’s ex-wife explains, in one of the film’s most lucid moments, how innocent mistakes can spiral into a host of unwitting crimes).
The film’s scattershot evidence implies government persecution but never convincingly makes the case. Seemingly unrelated is the disposition of Sue, the film’s purported subject. Wondrous as she is, her skeleton tells us little of Miller’s true bone of contention.