“The opening documentary at Sundance is traditionally one of the strongest at the festival,” begins Tim Wu at Slate. “In recent years, the spot has been occupied by Searching for Sugar Man, The Queen of Versailles, and 20 Feet from Stardom. This year the spotlight was on Dinosaur 13, about the discovery and struggle over the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found.”
It’s “the kind of ‘let me tell you a story you didn’t know’ doc that tends to have legs after the festival is over,” writes the Dissolve‘s Noel Murray. “Some of you may actually already know the saga of Sue, the T-Rex skeleton that was found in South Dakota in 1990 by a private paleontological institute, then seized by the federal government.” Director Todd Miller has made “an absorbing legal drama. What he fails to do is piece together the archival footage and talking-head interviews into something with lasting resonance—something that doesn’t look and feel like any other true-crime doc.”
“Because Miller shows the meticulous care it takes to get Sue out of the ground, cleaned off, and put on display at the local Black Hills Institute, it’s that much more cringe-inducing to see Sue eventually hauled off by the FBI,” writes Beth Hanna at Thompson on Hollywood.
“As it turned out, Sue’s bones were buried on one of the more legally complicated parcels of land in the country. The federal government, a Native American group, and a wily landowner (who had already taken a hefty check from [paleontologist Peter] Larson and his team) all felt they were the rightful owners of the skeleton.”
“Without giving too much away for viewers who didn’t follow the story as it happened,” writes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter, “the good guys get dragged through the mud and some very undeserving people get rich. Miller could do a better job explaining how the latter part of that equation happened, but at 106 minutes his film already feels a bit long.”
For the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd, “if nothing else, the film says some fairly damning things about the U.S. justice system.” But “Miller conflates multiple points, creating a false equivalency between one man’s sad legal fate and the more complicated issue of archeological ownership. Dinosaur 13 ultimately feels like something of a pity party, characterized by one-sided talking-head analysis and cursed with a gratingly manipulative score.”
“While hardly a showcase for top-notch filmmaking, Dinosaur 13 lets the innate appeal of the saga do the heavy lifting, which in this case is more than sufficient,” finds Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn.
“Fortunately,” writes Dennis Harvey for Variety, Sue “wound up at a reputable public institution (Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History). But the loss to the Institute, Hill City and South Dakota as a whole remains bitter. It’s a heartrending tale, duly inspired by Peter Larson’s print memoir.”
Update, 1/19: “Sue’s story is a naturally riveting tale of rock obsessed rebels caught in a real-estate netherworld where con men and power hungry institutions wield the power to ruin lives and bury dreams,” writes Jordan M. Smith at Ioncinema, “but too soon the dino-hunting excitement and intrigue of this insular world is traded for the tedium of offscreen courtroom drama.”