Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Beach Week: The Day of the Dolphin (1973)

Most of the movies I am reviewing during Beach Week this year concern sea animals attacking and killing people. 

Although many of those movies are indeed terrific, perhaps the focus on “terror” reveals how difficult it is to craft a movie about the wonders of the sea, instead.

The Day of the Dolphin (1973) is just such a film.  It is a thoughtful and highly-emotional science fiction movie that explores the connection between man and dolphin, and wears its heart on its sleeve.

And for this crime, the movie has long-been ridiculed.  

Critic Pauline Kael called The Day of the Dolphin “the most expensive Rin Tin Tin movie ever made, with a gimmick the Rin Tin Tin pictures never stooped to: the dolphins here are dubbed with plaintive, childish voices and speak in English.” (5001 Nights at the Movies, Holt Paperbacks, 1982, page 175.)

The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson, meanwhile dubbed The Day of the Dolphin “absurdly earnest.”

He may be right. The Day of the Dolphin is absurdly earnest to its core…but I’ll take that quality over ones like “crassly cynical,” or “blatant cash grab” any day of the week. 

The fact of the matter is that this 1973 film -- much like its dolphin co-stars -- today seems absolutely without guile. 

And that quality makes for powerful contrast with the film’s human villains, and also with the species called “movie reviewers” too.

At a secret, privately-run research facility by the sea, a team of scientists led by Dr. Jacob Terrell (George C. Scott) attempt to teach the first dolphin born into captivity, Alpha, to speak. 

When Alpha grows uncooperative and bored with his learning, a female dolphin, Beta, becomes his companion.  As Dr. Terrell grows closer to announcing his breakthrough in human/dolphin communication to the world, however, a dark conspiracy is hatched in secret. 

The dolphins are captured and taken away from the facility.  On the sea, they are trained to plant mines on boats…a task that will be used in an assassination attempt targeting the President of the United States.

Now Terrell must rescue the dolphins, stop their mission, and teach his wards that not all human beings can be trusted…

Many science fiction films of the 1970s deal with mankind’s always-changing relationship with animals, those fellow creatures he shares the Earth with. 

I wrote that the relationship is “ever changing,” and that process of change involves the boundaries of man’s science and knowledge.  As he better understands himself and the world, mankind’s understanding of animals -- and responsibility for them -- also changes. 

The Planet of the Apes sequels of the early 1970s directly involve mankind’s uneasy relationship with a close mammal cousin, and the fight for dominion. Mike Nichol’s The Day of the Dolphin concerns another highly intelligent inhabitant of the Earth -- the dolphin -- and asks the question: is dolphin-kind better off learning from us at our current stage of development, or should it remain far, far away from 20th century human beings all together?

The Day of the Dolphin centers on a character played by George C. Scott named Dr. Jake Terrell.  As the film opens, we see him lecturing about dolphin intelligence and communication to a rapt audience, and later, we seem him playing God, of a sort, at his marine research institute. 

There, he is the father figure for Alpha, the first dolphin raised in captivity.  He makes the decisions for Alpha, teaching him linguistics and semantics, and demanding obedience. 

When Alpha won’t obey, Terrell separates him from his mate/companion, the dolphin Beta, and the film depicts a heart-breaking scene of Alpha banging at a door plate, attempting to reach her.  He doesn’t understand being punished.

Finally, realizing that humans hold all the cards, Alpha obeys Terrell’s edicts. He submits. While hoping to teach the animals important human qualities, Terrell seems to lack one himself: compassion.  All he has taught Alpha is that man is “the boss.”

As the film continues, however, the audience detects a change in Terrell.  When he encounters those who would more cruelly exploit Alpha and Beta -- for purposes of political assassination, no less -- he sees the error of his ways. 

We should become like them…instinct and energy,” Terrell muses at one point.  He wonders explicitly why he has sought to re-cast the dolphins in terms of human standards and learning.  Furthermore, he realizes what a disservice he has done them. 

They trust us more than their own instincts,” he realizes.  “They’ve never been lied to…”

The Day of the Dolphin ends with Terrell making the ultimate parental sacrifice for his wards, to whom he has done wrong.

He is cruel, on purpose, to the dolphins, and thus knowingly drives them away….never to see them again. 

He knows they will be used badly by mankind again, and can’t let it happen. But they do not understand why he rejects them now.  They have no basis for understanding, and are without guile.

The last several minutes of the film will make audiences weep as the dolphins call after Jake in despair, and it takes every ounce of courage and resolve for him to reject and ignore their entreaties.  In this case, as Jake realizes, the dolphins are better off without human interference, better off hating humans, even. 

Even outside the commentary on humans and how they treat animals, the film works as a metaphor for parenting, for children and adults.  At some point, the children must walk (or swim) alone, and indulgence or assistance will do no further good. 

Some children won’t learn that lesson from gentleness and softness. Sometimes the lesson has to be hard, and that is a heartbreaking thing for everyone involved.

The Day of the Dolphin dramatizes its emotional tale with a minimum of obvious fakery, and the scenes of affection between Scott and the dolphins feel incredibly real, and therefore touching.  The scenes of Terrell and Alpha together, learning from one another, showing each other affection, represent the best angels of human nature: mankind’s capacity to reach out to other beings in peace and love. 

In keeping with the Watergate context of the era, however, the film also offers a yang to that yin.  The movie very deliberately charts a conspiracy, and notes that it is no longer possible to “trust the good old establishment.” 

On the contrary, the establishment here resorts to bugging the marine research center and stonewalling the public about real intentions. The final end game for this group of conspirators is the murder of the President of the United States.  The dolphins are but mere pawns in such a plot.

At its most basic level, The Day of the Dolphin emotionally explores the simple interrogative that Terrell asks of Alpha. 

“Why is man good?” 

One possible answer is that man, as in the case of Jake, has the ability to step back from his self-centered, petty concerns, learn from his mistakes, and make good decisions…decisions that benefit others.

 But oppositely, The Day of the Dolphin also suggests that the “good old establishment” is always going to exploit new science and new technology for anti-social reasons, and that those caught in the middle are, often, complete innocents, like Alpha and Beta.

As my introduction suggests, The Day of the Dolphin didn’t win many great reviews on its release in theaters in 1973, but it nonetheless impresses on an emotional level. 

Not only as a time-capsule of the Watergate Era, and the dawn of conspiracies in the science fiction cinema, but as a film that intelligently ponders human nature and behavior. 

When we are going to become “good” parents not just to our own biological children, but to the beings we share this world with?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:59 AM

    My most powerful recollection of this movie is when the visiting politician tells the dolphins that there is a shark in the tank. As I recall, Alpha looks around for the shark, but Beta makes a run for it, jumping out of the tank into the sea.

    'Fa get Bee now'.

    Then Alpha calls the politician a liar.