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The Day of the Dolphin (1973) June 1st, 2021

The limits of cetacean intelligence have fascinated me since I was five and first saw Free Willy. If you’re unfamiliar, Free Willy‘s the story of a troubled foster kid from Seattle named Jesse who’s gotten into hot water for vandalizing a local aquarium/sea park. He’s sentenced to remove all the spray-paint and repair any damage his shenanigans caused. While scrubbing away he learns about Willy, the park’s resident captive orca. Jesse develops a strong bond with the cetacean creature learning to communicate with him and sympathizing with the damaging effects of captivity. Willy’s disfigured, his dorsal fin is flopped over presumably atrophied from disuse distinguishes his appearance. At night he wails to his family group still free in Puget Sound. The kid’s affection for the orca grows the more time they spend together and eventually the movie develops into a heist/escape flick when Jesse learns the aquarium’s owners plan to euthanize Willy. Free Willy was a cultural phenomenon and I was smack dab in the middle of its target demographic. This movie taught me many things I remember to this day. The people in Pike’s Place are incapable of handing each other fish, Michael Jackson desperately wanted to imprint on elementary age children, and orcas are very smart.

Cut to 2016, I’m listening to Radio Lab on my way to work. The episode’s called Home is Where Your Dolphin Is, the title’s twist on a quaint idiom masks the podcast’s hidden subject; dolphin handjobs. In the 60’s a group of scientists led by Dr. John C. Lily wanted to test the limits of cetacean intelligence and develop functional methods of interspecies communications. To this end they constructed a semiaquatic research center where scientists cohabitated with dolphins to maximize their opportunities to learn and communicate. To summarize some of what they learned, turns out juvenile male dolphins are just as unproductively horny as juvenile male humans. One young dolphin named Peter would refuse to participate in tasks and exercises choosing instead to harass his researcher by displaying his erect penis until she relieved him manually. Then he would take a nap or do whatever it was she asked him to do before meeting his demands. This exchange was not a one off, it was not spontaneous. This interaction was deliberate and eventually routine. One could considered it a ‘relationship’. Their interspecies communication efforts were a bust in that we don’t currently have open lines of communication with the dolphin kingdom but the data gathered by Dr. Lilly’s team may provide other hints to dolphin’s hidden intelligence. You can read all about it in John C. Lilly’s book Communication Between Man & Dolphin (forward by Burgess Meredith!). This story taught me many things I haven’t forgotten. Providing sexual gratification to research subjects interferes with data collection, Burgess Meredith is not a scientist, and dolphins are smart and horny.

So then I see this blu-ray for a movie called “The Day of the Dolphin” about a scientist played by George C. Scott who’s constructed a research center where he and his staff of hippie college students teach a dolphin to talk and I think ,”Where do they get off making a movie about this subject?! Gross!” Then I promptly buy it to see if they include any of the… ‘Flipper‘ stuff.

They don’t. Instead The Day of the Dolphin is an earnest attempt to explore dolphins’ alarming intelligence and a meditation on the truism that for every altruistic scientific advancement there will always be someone ready to turn it into a weapon. In this case a group of bad guys abduct the talking dolphins and trains them to plant bombs on the under side of yachts hopefully killing the high powered politicians and foreign leaders on board. It seems like a fun sci-fi idea except the dolphins die too. Not so fun to me.

George C. Scott is one of the best screen actors in history but for some reason he made real weird movies in the 70’s like The Day of the Dolphin and Hardcore. I don’t know why he chose such radical work but I thank him for it, not only does his presence help offset the film’s bizarre premise but his performance carries the entire emotion weight of the picture. The Day of the Dolphin’s script certainly doesn’t makes George C. Scott’s job any easier. The premise, the goofy dolphin speaking voices, nor Paul Sorvino’s overacting relive Scott’s burden, yet somehow he’s able to make me believe he loves those dolphins like his children and they love him in return. My belief in that love makes his inevitable ‘Harry and the Hendersons‘ moment truly heartbreaking.

The Day of the Dolphin is not likely a movie you’ll enjoy. Its high concept premise and unwavering seriousness are easy to mock and hard to grasp. The movie glosses over the potentially interesting science behind interspecies communications in favor of a ham-fisted explosive climax. Despite all the criticism you’ve got to hand it to these dolphin lovers and George C. Scott especially, for their bold choice to produce a strange film.

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