The Day of the Dolphin

Advanced dolphin tricks
Mike Nichols
George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver, Buck Henry
The Setup: 
Marine biologist has taught dolphins to speak! The government wants them to KILL!

This was something I remember from seeing on television all the time when it was the 70s and life was good. I’m not sure I ever watched the entire thing, but I knew it was a bleeding heart liberal movie in which dolphins talk and the evil government tries to get them to do something bad. Or something. By the way, every time you read the word “Dolphins” in this review, you are to clutch your hands to your chest and coo “Oh! Dolphins!”

So first our mouths drop open as we see that this is released by Janus Films, who usually push out super-arty fare. Then we notice that it’s written by Buck Henry, whose voice was combined with the sound of real dolphins and whatever else to create the dolphin talk we hear later. I’m telling you this so you can imagine Buck Henry every single time the dolphins speak, as I did. So George C. Scott as Jake Terrell delivers an assload of dolphin exposition right to the camera. He is, of course, supposedly giving a speech to a bunch of women [and one man] at some institute or other. One of the women asks about some work the government is doing with dolphins and Jake cuts her off to say he knows nothing about it. After the lecture, Jake goes home to his wife, Maggie, who was just bitten on the leg by Alpha, their main dolphin. This is apparently the third time this has happened in the week. Though I don’t know what this has to do with anything, as it goes nowhere. Their research facility is on this island, and there are basically dolphins everywhere, including in this small H-shaped pool, about twice the length of a dolphin, that a dolphin is supposedly in. I don’t get it. For a while, everywhere you turn, there’s a dolphin. Then Jake gets in the tank and we have what can only be described as the “dolphin lovemaking scene,” in which Jake and Alpha, you know, hold, touch and caress each other. This is a long sequence, accompanied only by lyrical music. You know those people you read about online who want to or claim to have had sex with dolphins? I’d be prepared to wager $10 that each of them has this movie in their collections. But you know, truth be told, the footage is kind of amazing.

Anyway, so Paul Sorvino plays this guy Mahoney who claims to be a journalist, but is actually an emissary of the government. He essentially extorts his way into a visit to the island, because he knows quite a bit about what’s going on there and threatens to write an expose. Terrell wants to keep it secret because he fears that if people knew what he’s doing, they would exploit his dolphins. Oh! Dolphins!

Meanwhile, on the island, Jake and the company bring in a new dolphin, Beta, to be Alpha’s lil ladyfriend. I think perhaps we are supposed to understand that Alpha bit Maggie because he was jealous of her relationship with Jake, and this is why they thought they’d get him a mate. Although he has obviously indicated that he’s into late middle-aged male gasbags. So they put the dolphins together, and it’s love at first sight! I would have thought dolphins would be a bit more selective, given their advanced intelligence and all, but I guess loneliness makes us choose strange partners. Like George C. Scott. Anyway, the two dolphins are so happy, they perform many leaps in unison! Do dolphins really do this? Or is this just what they could TRAIN dolphins to do? It makes you wonder, and at several points in the movie you kind of feel like you’re watching Advanced Dolphin Tricks at Sea World.

So Harold, who handles Jake’s business matters, lies and says that Mahoney is an old friend of his, and arranges a visit. We get a lot more exposition while he’s there, and learn that Alpha was born in captivity, never been in the open ocean, trained by Jake since birth, and in order to teach Alpha human language, Jake denied him learning any dolphin language. So there’s a fair amount of room for interpretation as to whether what Jake is doing is admirable, or monstrous in its own way. Anyway, Mahoney snoops around that night, seems to have gotten whatever he wanted, and leaves the next day. Then Jake goes through this exercise in which he denies Alpha from seeing Beta until he asks politely, using human language. When they’re finally reunited, there’s more jumping for joy.

So Mahoney writes an article, and Harold convinces Jake to demonstrate his progress with Alpha to their many investors. The investors are portrayed as a bunch of rich white fat cats without the patience for any of the morons around them, and they ask Alpha a bunch of questions he can’t understand, which makes Jake a bit tetchy, leading him to say things like “Okay, I’m going to explain this slowly, so hopefully you’ll understand.” Key among the white fat cats is this one, Ben, with a white mustache and a cigar. We’ll be seeing more of him. Also in here is much hand-wringing over the fact that the dolphins “have never been lied to.” They’re innocent and pure! Like children! Uncorrupted by the lies and evil of the world! Anyway, after this, Jake and Maggie are sent to the mainland to conduct a press conference, and finally come forward with all their research.

So Jake and Maggie find that there’s no press conference when they get back to the mainland! And when they get back, a guy has been shot and Alpha and Beta have been kidnapped! The bad guys—who are some of the investors we saw earlier, including the cigar/white mustache guy we saw earlier—want the dolphins to kill the president! They’ve been trained to place a magnetic bomb on the bottom of the president’s yacht! And the government folks are telling the dolphins that Jake wants them to do this—they’re LYING to the dolphins! Furthermore, Jake realizes that the guys will kill the dolphins after they kill the president—because now they can TALK! And dead dolphins tell no tales. From then it’s not long until we see the evil white mustache guy assembling his special dolphin-killing rifle. The monster!

Anyway, somehow Alpha gets free and returns to Jake. The baddies are going to use Beta to kill the president, which I think is odd, as she’s far less experienced, but whatever. Jake tells Alpha to tell Beta not to place the bomb! Then—and I thought this was funny, because it was obviously Alpha’s own idea—they put the bomb on the bad guys’ boat! And the baddies die! Then—are you ready for the heartbreaking finale?—Jake realizes that he must let Alpha and Beta go free, because there will always be someone coming to exploit them! To LIE to them! To make them work at Wal-Mart! So he kicks them out, and the final shot is the sad, bewildered dolphin calling out for him, and Jake hiding behind a tree. Even though these dolphins cannot exist in the wild anymore and cannot even speak regular dolphin language.

It was… well, very much of its time. It just drips dolphin-lovin’ 70s liberal sentiment. It’s kind of fun and you have bad government people and a hidden lab and… DOLPHINS! I know I’ve been snide, but it’s hard not to be enthralled with dolphins, and here you get a lot of close-ups and see them doing things [like the whole dolphin love sequence] you don’t normally see. Then you get a bunch of dolphin tricks you DO normally see, like the flips and walking on water stuff, etc. And it’s a kind of fun idea—what if dolphins could talk? That it’s a generally good watch and you’re unlikely—especially if you have 8-14yo kids—to go away unhappy.

The problems with it are also that same 70s liberal quality, that kind of makes one dismiss the entire thing before it even begins. And the fact that—and this is something that can SUDDENLY occur to you and kind of deflate the entire movie—there really is NO connection whatsoever between Alpha talking and the ability to stick a bomb to the bottom of a boat. They could have trained ANY dolphin to do that. But then we wouldn’t have a movie. I did like that the movie bring up—or at least opens itself to the question—that Jake is somewhat immoral for his strict training of this dolphin to do unnatural things, and denying him his own language and socializing while forcing another, alien way of being on him.

Also on the disc is a fun little trivia section that branches off to include some of the things they talk about, like the German trailer for the film or a TV commercial with Trish Van Devere. Also, don’t miss the interview with Buck Henry, which may be the most forthright DVD extra I have ever seen. He says director Nichols was developing another project, but suddenly picked this one, leaving Henry bewildered, as the novel was “a big, sprawling mess.” He makes no bones about the fact that he doesn’t care for the film, has some criticism to make of George C. Scott’s on-set behavior, and generally spews snide sass in every direction. He generally considers the novel this was adapted from to be a disaster, and say there were things he HAD to change—like, in the novel, the dolphins were placing bombs on a Chinese ship, and could fully talk in complex sentences. He tells a story about one of the dolphins swimming out to sea, and says “Now if only we could get certain actors to swim out to sea and never come back.” Now I want to have dinner with Buck Henry! And again, it’s almost as though you’re hallucinating to hear some HONESTY in a DVD extra.

Anyway, a kind of fun 70s movie with lots of hand-wringing liberal sentiment and cute dolphins doing cute dolphin tricks. You know you want to.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, it’s amusing enough, has some good 70s flavor, and dolphins. Oh, dolphins!