Tuesday, June 09, 2015

"The Day of the Dolphin": Cetacean intelligence outwits human assassination plotters

The Day of the Dolphin”, a 1973 film from Mike Nichols, provides a good example of a suspense and sci-fi film deviating from the book by Robert Merle, “The Sentient Being” ("Un animal doue de raison"), adapted to screen by Buck Henry.
Of course, the allure of the film and book is the mind and intelligence of the dolphin, and what the results could be if they collaborate.

As the film starts, Dr. Jake Terrell (George C. Scott) talks while we watch a live birth of Alpha (or Pha), tail first, as he swims to the surface for a first breath.  Terrell explains the consciousness of a dolphin, able to communicate simultaneously with other individuals at different distances in the water with sonar.  He speculates as to why their ancestors went back to the water 60 million years ago (for "free fish" and living space).   It’s a while before we realize he is lecturing. It's an interesting writing trick to start a film as if it were going to be a documentary.
Terrell has taught Pha English, but when he grows into “manhood” he regresses until he is introduced to a female, Beta.  Pha teaches Beta some English, although it is somewhat toddler-like.
Eventually, outside interests surreptitiously capture and recruit Alpha and Beta for a clandestine mission, to plant a magnetically held bomb underneath a yacht operated by the president of the United States (maybe Nixon at the time?)  When Terrell discovers the plot (that’s rather convoluted), he speaks English to Pha and gets him and Beta to abandon the mission. But the dolphins figure out who the enemy is and blow up the assassin’s boat instead.
It would seem that research ought to be able to unscramble dolphin (especially orca) language, which may somewhat resemble some Asian languages in ascribing meaning to pitch.
The novel was different in that the US government uses dolphins to attack a Chinese ship and try to start WWIII.  It also has dolphins in more intricate conversations than Buck Henry thought could be believable, according to the DVD (Image) interview.  Note other movies about dolphins here unser the "animal abuse" label. 
The orchestral music score, by George Delerue, is somewhat melodramatic.
The original film was released by Avco Embassy.  I remember reading the paperback book, translated, but somehow I missed the film originally.
Wikipedia attribution link for NASA picture of dolphin. 

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