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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Day of the Dolphin

The last sci-fi film of 1973 was a big budget affair. Day of the Dolphin (DotD)was a very large project for a largish independent (not the usual Hollywood studio) firm: Avco Embassy Pictures. DotD's screenplay was written by Buck Henry, adapted from Robert Merle's 1967 novel. DotD was directed by Mike Nichols and starred George C. Scott as the tough-but-tender scientist. The story is more of a conspiracy thriller than it is sci-fi, yet DotD gets put on sci-fi movie lists. It's lone claim to sci-fi being that a scientist succeeded in teaching a dolphin to talk.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Jake Terrell (Scott) gives a lecture to a ladies club about Alpha, a male dolphin born in captivity and raised by him. Jake talks of dolphins being potentially as intelligent as humans. Afterward, Jake's liaison with The Foundation, Howard, questions some budget expenses, but doesn't fuss. Jake leaves by boat for his island. He returns, gets cranky at his staff, but all tender with his dolphins. Back on land, a reporter named Curtis blackmails Howard into letting him investigate Jake's secretive work. Howard reluctantly agrees. When Curtis comes to the island, Jake has hidden Alpha and Beta (his mate), though Curtis sees through the subterfuge. He leaves. A short while later, Jake is summoned to the mainland to give a report to the Foundation. This was all a trick, however, to get Jake and Maggie off the island. While they're away, David takes a call, supposedly from Jake, to put Alpha and Beta on a yacht anchored offshore. The staff reluctantly do so. All this while, Curtis and his friend are in the bushes, watching. The friend goes by night to check things out, and gets clobbered. When Jake and Maggie return, they deny placing the call. David is gone. Curtis's friend is found dead. Aboard the yacht, David has fitted the two dolphins with plastic collars that let them deliver a magnetic mine to the hull of a boat. He trains them to seek a boat flying the president's ensign. After a training session, Alpha balks. The men shoot at him with rifles. Alpha returns to Jake. David keeps training Beta. Jake and Curtis figure out where the bad guys plan to use the mines and take off with Alpha leading the way. They send Alpha ahead with instructions to stop Beta. "The ball is bad." Alpha does stop Beta just as she finds the president's yacht. They swim back to the bad guy yacht and attach the mine. The bad guys blow up. Alpha and Beta swim back to the island. Jake is happy, but orders them to swim away, be happy and multiply. Jake knows The Foundation will come to kill them all to cover up the plot. Alpha and Beta swim away free. A float plane lands. Jake and Maggie sit under the trees, waiting to be shot. Fade to black. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The entertainment value come more from the thriller aspect. The evil shadowy Foundation is a suitable villain for the 70s. George C. Scott does a good job acting. Paul Sorvino is good as the suspect but likable journalist.

Cultural Connection
The New Noble Savage -- Back in the 18th century the mixing of Primitivism and Sentimentalism gave rise to the archetype of The Noble Savage. Following manaecheistic logic of opposites, the notion was that if Europeans were mean, selfish, violent and cruel, "primitives" would be noble, kind, sweet and peaceful. The Noble Savage was a convenient literary foil for european "civilized" man. Come the late 60s and early 70s, the nascent environmentalism movement fell into the same manaecheism trap. This time around, animals got promoted to become the New Noble Savage. Where humans were mean, selfish, violent and cruel, animals would be seen as kind, sweet, peaceful and noble. At one point, Jake says that people should be more like the dolphins: "all instinct and energy." (a metaphor for contemporary youth's self-assessment.) This new Sentimentalism is the same notion that gets people mauled by grizzly bears, or climb into zoo cages and get mauled by tigers (who the pre-mauled imagine to be Nobel Savages).

Based on the Book -- Buck Henry based his screenplay Robert Merle's 1967 novel "Un animal doué de raison" (A Sentient Animal). This was translated into English in '69. DotD is said to have a plot significantly different than book, though the trope of trained dolphins is the same.

Actual Science -- Robert Merle based his dolphin-whisperer character on John C. Lilly, an actual neuroscientist (among other things) who also dabbled in the topics of consciousness, intelligence and dolphin communication. Lilly had a research facility on an island in the caribbean and claimed to have taught dolphins to make human speech pattern sounds. Lilly appears to be a "scientist" in the old-school sense of classic sci-fi. His methods were too unconventional for (big-money) establishments, so he tended to work in remote facilities with just himself and a few associates.

Big Loser -- Despite being a well-funded "A" grade film, DotD was not a big hit at the box office. Perhaps it was too dour for the Christmas marketing season it was released in. It also proves that simply having big bucks does not assure success. Joseph Levine's AVCO Embassy Pictures corporation had a string of money-losing films in the early 70s. DotD was one of the bigger losers. It cost over $8 million to make, but brought in less than $3 in it's American release. European releases may have softened that, but not by much. Levine would sell Embassy in the mid 70s.

Dark Ending -- Perhaps one reason DotD did not sell well, is the downer ending -- especially around Christmas when audiences tend to want to feel good. In the end, The Foundation's plot to assassinate the President failed, but the shadowy group lived on. Alpha and Beta escaped to go live the idyllic life in the wild, but Jake and his team were understood to just be waiting to be killed by Foundation gunmen. Normally, 70s audiences liked their dystopias, but a sort of On the Beach ('59) ending at Christmas did not go over well.

Bottom line? DotD is a well made and well acted thriller. It can be enjoyed for that. As a sci-fi, it is very thin. The sentimentality is particularly thick, but still a good example of the growing "animals are people too" mind set.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Never cared for this one. The evil Foundation was the ultimate synthesis of "evil government" and "evil corporation." If something's that powerful, one would think they could've come up with a better, more efficient means of killing the President that relying on dolphins.

Also didn't care for the use of dolphins as the agent for destruction, and I think audiences might've been turned off by it as well.