The premise of a marine biologist (George C. Scott) who teaches a dolphin how to talk, and a corporate conspiracy that results in the animal being used to covertly attach bombs to boats, already sounds far-fetched for a sci-fi thriller. So it's quite a feat for director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry to successfully turn Robert Merle's novel with the same name into what's first and foremost a heartfelt drama about the deep bond between the biologist and the dolphin, as well as an indictment of humanity's hubris over nature.
Nichols was looking forward to ending his four-picture deal with his producer, so he sought out projects that would allow him to experiment with genres and styles he hadn't worked with before. The Day of the Dolphin was supposed to be helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes), who had more experience with the genre. But Nichols' character-oriented approach grounds this story about a talking dolphin brainwashed into covert assassinations. Nichols splits the film into two halves, the first concerning the biologist's work with his dolphin, and the intimate connection humans can have with a mammal who might be smarter than them. The second half becomes a nail-biting thriller, supported by the personal connection that the central relationship in the story created with the audience.
During the first two acts, Buck Henry peppers in the story's thriller elements, teasing the tense conflict that will dominate the third act. The Day of the Dolphin's screenplay also provides an apt lesson in how to handle exposition dumps in cinematic fashion. The first act not only has to explain dolphin biology to the audience, but also needs to introduce complex linguistic jargon to explain the speech experiment. Henry gets around this by employing clever visual cues, like the use of a warehouse full of tape recordings being played at the same time to show the dolphin's progress.
Kino's 1080p transfer balances out the first half's bright cinematography, full of ocean colors, with the darker and contrast-filled thriller sections. There's some scrubbing to give the film a bit of a digital video look, but the transfer also retains some of the period grain.
The DTS-HD 2.0 mono track gets the job done as far as bringing a dynamic range between the dialogue, the score, and the sound effects that dominate the third act. The clarity of the dialogue is important, since the dolphin's speech is intentionally hard to comprehend at times.
Commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson: In this meticulously crafted commentary, the two film historians jump back and forth between the challenges of the production and the themes of the story.
Interviews with Buck Henry, Leslie Charleson, and Edward Herrmann: In this simple series of talking heads interviews, Henry gives us a history lesson on how the film came to be, while actors Charleson and Herrmann talk about their experiences with the production.
We also get a Trailer.
Considering the out-there premise and a director-writer team not fully experienced with the genre, The Day of the Dolphin could have easily crashed and burned. It's certainly not a perfect thriller or drama, since it perhaps tries to cram in too many themes and too much plot into such a small and simple package. However, as a ‘70s sci-fi/thriller oddity, it's engaging and fun.