MOVIE REVIEW: “Day of the Dolphin” (1973)

What a strange, laconic film this is! Seriously: It starts out relaxed, doesn’t move very far, and takes its own sweet time getting there. Also, it picks an odd place to end, proving Welles’ old saw about the difference between tragedy and triumph being where you decide to stop telling the story.

In a nutshell – and believe you me, it doesn’t take a very big nut to hold this film – we’ve got George C. Scott as a marine biologist living on an island off the coast of Florida with his surprisingly-but-not-inappropriately young wife, a bunch of interns, and a couple dolphins. The star of the research facility is “Alpha” (“Fa” for short), a dolphin born in captivity and raised by humans without any contact with his own kind. As a result, he’s “Learned to speak people talk” as they say in Pokemon. Specifically, he can speak English, a bit, though it’s kinda’ hard to understand. He can understand English, too. A good corporation is funding the research in exchange for the tax dodge it provides, while the evil Paul Sorvino is posing as a reporter trying to gain access for some nefarious purpose or other.

As Fa has hit puberty, they give him a girlfriend, “Beta” (“Bea” for short). George and Mrs. George (Played by his real-life wife Trish Van Devere) are called away from the island by the company, and one of the interns gets a call from George saying the dolphins are to be loaded on to a yacht that’s gonna’ show up soon. When George and Trish get back to the island, they find Fa and Bea gone, along with one of the interns. Then the evil Paul Sorvino appears and explains – in a pretty good twist, actually – that he’s not evil, in fact the company and the intern are evil. They’ve kidnapped the dolphins for some nefarious purpose, and Paul Sorvino was actually trying to keep them from it. In the second good twist of the movie, we find that Sorvino *AND* the Corporate Goons are both working for the US government, albeit opposing factions.

The bad guys train Bea to place a bomb on the president’s yacht, which will kill him. Fa escapes, and George explains that bombs are designed to kill, so Fa warns Bea. The two of them plant the bomb on the bad guy’s yacht instead, which blows up and kills them in what results in one of the funnier uses of the “S-word” in early 70s SF. The movie doesn’t end, there, however. We get about another fifteen minutes or so where our heroes – George, Trish, Paul, and the interns – realize that the corporate goons aren’t going to let them live because they know too much. Sorvino basically bails on ‘em as a plane carrying gunmen approaches. George and Trish drive Fa and Ba away, then go hide in the woods, waiting to die.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Wow, that’s kind of a downer, isn’t it? This would be a great kids film were it not so glacially paced, didn’t have profanity, and didn’t end with everyone dying and the dolphins coming across somewhat like abandoned babies in the wilderness. It’s a weird film. It really is. Really, I could have summarized it in less space, and if we’re honest the stuff of note that actually happens in each act is haiku length, but it’s padded out to 90 minutes.

Thing is: despite that, it’s an engaging film. The sedate qualities give it an almost verite feel, or maybe a documentary feel. Not exactly, it’s not intended to be like that, but everything just takes so long that you kind of feel like you’re waiting along with these people for stuff to happen. It’s not an art film, it’s not really taking the long Russian road, but even by 1973 standards it’s pretty slow. It’s not surprising it was a bomb.

There’s also an interesting disconnect between the sweet, adorable, baby-talking dolphin (Bea never learns to speak) and the generally misanthropic feel of the movie as a whole. George C. Scott is playing a man who doesn’t like men, and prefers the company of fish. His wife takes an even dimmer view of corporate America. Paul Sorvino – who’s great in the movie, but seems a bit like a straight Nathan Lane this time out – is a government spook who’s perfectly content with the fact that he’s sent out to kill other spooks, and that they’re coming after him. The idea being that there’s a sort of perpetual undeclared civil war in the government. I actually like that idea. It’s got some potential legs, even if it’s crazy 1970s paranoid. The fact that the government tries to kill the president, and then tries to kill everyone who found out about it is, once again, just crazy ‘70s. At one point George and Trish discuss the fact that they’ve made Fa like us, and kind of doomed him to our miserable sort of existence in the process.

As Prometheus myths go, it’s sort of interesting. Generally it’s “Don’t take fire from the gods because they’ll kick your ass.” In this case, it’s more like “The gods give you fire because they like you, but it just ends up hurting and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Sorry.”

In fact I sort of admire the movie for giving us a perfectly acceptable happy ending, and then spending fifteen minutes tearing it apart. I found myself wondering if saving the president *was* happy as it cost the good guys their lives, and wasn’t any too good for the dolphins. I guess the climax of the film is happy in that Fa and Bea survive, and they really are innocents caught in this, but their being released out into the sea is pretty jagged and heartbreaking. Earlier in the film, George said Fa only talked because he loved him and his wife, but in the company of others of his kind, he’d quickly stop, he couldn’t teach others, and that it required a lot of effort for him to do it. It’s not hard to extrapolate from that to the idea that a dolphin raised entirely by people isn’t going to survive in the wild. Perhaps Bea will take care of him, but I think the kids are screwed, really. Yeah, a chance for survival is better than certain death, but still…

The movie is interestingly nebulous with regards to animal sapience. George says that all he’s really got is a dolphin approximating human speech while responding to some verbal cues. It could be training. Clearly it’s more than that, but it may not be *THAT* much more. It can be argued that Fa isn’t much more than a dog that can say “I love you.” I do think we’re supposed to believe he’s intelligent, but the part that interests me is that he’s clearly not nearly *AS* intelligent as humans. He’s an adolescent dolphin, so he’s probably not going to get much smarter than he is, but he seems to think and act on the level of a three or four year old kid. Factor in the obvious environmental differences and all, and he’s still skewing very young and/or not amazingly bright. Like 50 IQ, or thereabouts? A genius for anything other than a human, but by our standards not much.

Acting is, on the whole, pretty good. Well, heck, it’s got George C. Scott, and apart from that sitcom where he was the president, I’ve never really seen him give a phoned in performance. He’s not always great, but he’s always fully engaged, you know? I’ve never really seen him play a smart-guy-scientist-type before. Makes me want to watch some more of his roles.

To my surprise, we actually still had a presidential yacht in 1973. It was the “USS Sequoyah” and it was sold in 1977 by Jimmy Carter. Man, we could have used some exploding dolphins in those days, huh? Anyway: the pictures I found make it apparent that the *Real* presidential yacht was a piece of crap compared to the one in the film.

Edward Herrmann is in this movie, basically being very young and very skinny. He’s best known from “Gilmore Girls” and “The Lost Boys.”

The motorboat that Scott et all use to get to and from the mainland is called the “Erewhon.” That’s a 19th century Utopian satirical novel that is so obscure I occasionally think I must have hallucinated it. Thus the name really popped out at me. I really should review that book here some time…

This movie was written by Buck Henry. Yeah, *THAT* Buck Henry. Mike Nichols, the director, is most famous for “The Graduate.” He’s also a stand-up comic. Furthermore, this movie was based on a French novel which was, allegedly, a comedic parody of the cold war. All of which strikes me as odd since the film is so doggedly un-funny (Apart from one really great bit of scatology referenced above.) Just weird.

On a personal note, I’ve occasionally mentioned how seeing things I used to like, but haven’t seen in 30 or 40 years puts me in the same room with an earlier version of myself, right? Well I used to love this film as a kid – cute talking dolphins, what’s not to love? – and it was on TV constantly. I assumed I’d be hanging out with young me in no time, but, no. Apart from “It’s hard for them to do it” and “Fa love pa” and the scene where Fa heads off Bea, I honestly didn’t remember a lick of it. Weirdest thing. Also, the parts I did remember are far, far, far, far longer in my memory than in the actual film. This makes me think I must have been crazy young, with a little kid’s kinda’ goofy time sense.

Bottom line: This is an interesting film, but only just barely. It’s not really worth putting any effort into finding, but if you stumble across at 3AM when you’re riddled with insomnia, you could do worse than watch it.

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