The Day of the Dolphin

The Day of the Dolphin. Avco Embassy Pictures 1973.

Before Watching the Movie:

There were three things that I knew about this movie when I decided I had to watch and review it:

  • It has George C. Scott
  • It features a plot to train a dolphin as an assassin
  • This insane pitch is a real movie made in the 70s.

It turns out that this is based on a novel, because even in the 70s, Hollywood can’t be so creative to put The Manchurian Candidate underwater. I also suspect that this was inspired by the ketamine-fueled investigations into dolphin speech by John C Lilly.

After watching the movie:

Jake Terrell, his wife Maggie, and a small team have been working in iconoclastic isolation on an island off the coast of Florida for years researching human-dolphin communication. Their greatest success is with Alpha (or “Fa”), a captive-born dolphin raised by Jake and Maggie for the last four years, who has developed the ability to understand and vocalize simple English speech. Jake’s cynical worldview leads him to keep their achievement a secret even from the sole funding source, the Franklin Institute. Curtis Mahoney, claiming to be a journalist, pressures the head of the Institute, Harold DeMilo, into getting him inside Terrell’s lab for a story on dolphin research, and threatens to go public with what he sees, which gets DeMilo the leverage he needs to convince Jake to do a press conference and tell his version of the story first. However, while Jake and Maggie are on the mainland, the press conference is suddenly canceled, and when they return to their island, the team tells them that one of their own, David, told them that Jake had called and said that Fa and his mate Bea were going to be transferred on a boat from the Institute. Realizing they’ve been duped and their dolphins stolen, they learn from Mahoney, really a government agent, that DeMilo’s group intends to use the dolphins for nefarious purposes of their own.

After speculating that this was related to Lilly’s research, I dimly remembered that it may have come up in discussions of Lilly, but then the first act was pretty clearly based on Lilly and his dolphins. However, when this movie goes bonkers, it does so in a completely different way than Lilly’s own work did. I read that the screenplay was significantly changed from the book it’s based on, but I wasn’t able to get satisfying answers on how, other than importing more Lilly than was already there into what was originally a political satire.

As a satire, the overkill of stealing talking dolphins to plant a bomb on a boat works. Played straight like the movie does, it’s a little confusing. Why not just train dolphins to plant bombs through traditional dolphin training methods, as has been claimed of the US Military? It feels like something tacked on to give an interesting concept an exciting and relevant conclusion. There’s also so much cloak and dagger that it’s hard to even understand what sides the players are actually on other than “assassinate” and “not that”. It has its roots in the cold war, but from what we see it could make more sense as big business interests clearing the way for someone in their pocket.

Between the dolphins and George C. Scott, nobody else has room to be remarkable in this movie. I’m sure the dolphin performances took up an incredible amount of shooting time, because at some times they’re more emotive than Scott. Not that that’s too difficult, because his main modes are cranky, boiling, and humbled, but fun to watch regardless. Jake is supposed to love his dolphins very much, but because of the way Scott plays everything, that love is hidden behind so much bluster and stoicism that it doesn’t read very well. I guess ultimately, Jake is a hippy scientist being played by one of the squarest actors of the day.

This is insane in different ways than I wanted it to be, rather reluctantly arriving at being the sci-fi political thriller it’s positioned as. Maybe there were more bad decisions than good ones involved in the production of this story, and maybe the first one was “producing the story”. However, the result is not so much a travesty as just a bit bizarre and clunky. I didn’t laugh at it as much as I thought I would, and I wasn’t held in suspense as much as the filmmakers hoped. It’s a minor mess with aquatic mammals stealing the show.

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