Part 10: Talk to the animals
The conflict between humanity and nature is one of the basic plots in movies and elsewhere, and in many science-fiction films, it tends to take the same form: Humanity crosses a line, and in response, nature produces monsters. That was true even before Godzilla trampled Tokyo, but especially true in the years after the big lizard made his first excursion inland. Thanks to the relative ease of suggesting giant animal attacks via miniatures and rear projection—however awkwardly—the 1950s and ’60s saw invasions from grasshoppers (Beginning Of The End), giant gila monsters (The Giant Gila Monster), crab monsters (Attack Of The Crab Monsters), and other such films, many of which made their way to Mystery Science Theater 3000. That dubious tradition persisted in the 1970s via films like Night Of The Lepus (which set loose giant rabbits in Arizona) and The Giant Spider Invasion (which made rural Wisconsin the site of, well, read the title again). The lattermost boasted the tagline “There has never been a film like this before.” In fact, there had been many, and more followed.
Yet a handful of science-fiction films took a different approach to human/animal relations, exploring what it might be like to fulfill the Dolittle-ian dream of talking to the animals—be it in the here and now, a post-apocalyptic future, or on the cusp of some tremendous planet-wide transformation. Perhaps there were stories to tell other than those in which mutated creatures trampled major cities.
Day Of The Dolphin was considered an odd project for all involved at the time, and it looks no less odd now. Mike Nichols—having just directed Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge one after the other—would top nobody’s list of directors likely to bring to the screen a story of talking dolphins trapped in an assassination plot. The project landed in Nichols’ lap after being abandoned by Roman Polanski and Planet Of The Apes’ Franklin Schaffner (who’d had some luck with talking animals). Owing one more film to producer Joseph E. Levine, Nichols took it on as a challenge, enlisting the equally unlikely screenwriter Buck Henry, his partner on The Graduate and Catch-22.
Yet anyone walking into Day Of The Dolphin in 1973 expecting another film of biting wit from the pair surely walked out confounded. Loosely adapting a 1967 novel from French novelist Robert Merle, Henry and Nichols grabbed elements from gentle nature films and paranoid thrillers of the sort that began to sprout in the wake of the JFK assassination, then flourished with the revelations of Watergate. It’s an impossible-to-classify film that’s very much of its time, in tune with the eco-friendly early 1970s—an era that saw a Republican president proposing and launching the EPA—and post-1960s disillusionment. Hero Dr. Jake Terrell (George C. Scott) wants nothing more than to be left alone to tend to his area of interest, communicating with dolphins. He’s uncompromising in his pursuit, even though that pursuit is rooted in one big compromise: receiving funding from those who hope to profit from any breakthroughs.
Scott is another unlikely choice for the film, but his combination of gruffness and sensitivity works here. He’s tender with the dolphins—“Fa” and “Bee” for “Alpha” and “Beta”—whom he teaches to speak rudimentary English. They return his attention with affection, referring to him as “Pa.” He’s tough when he suspects his sponsors, the Franklin Foundation, have been less than honest with him. He’s tougher still when Fa and Bee go missing, kidnapped by the nefarious Franklin Foundation elements who are determined to make the dolphins place a mine on the bottom of the president’s yacht.
“I thought it was a stupid book,” Henry told an interviewer a few years ago. “I tried to move it in the direction of a less stupid film. I won’t even comment on whether I, you, or anyone else thought that I was successful.” Earlier, in an interview included on Day Of The Dolphin’s DVD, he was less cagey and more specific, saying, “The more it was about the physical beauty and the interesting play between the animals and people… That’s the only time it’s any good.” He isn’t wrong, really. As a purely sensory experience, the film holds together well, or at least well enough not to deserve its inclusion on Nichols’ personal list of “hilarious failures.”
“Imagine,” Terrell tells a lecture audience in the film’s opening scene, “imagine that your life is spent in an environment of total physical sensation. That every one of your senses has been heightened to a level that in a human being might only be described as ‘ecstatic.’” From there, the film cuts to slow-motion footage of a dolphin leaping into the air with a rubber ball in its mouth, an image cued to Georges Delerue’s majestic score. The film is never better than in that moment, and in similar moments that want nothing more than to show the dolphins swimming and interacting. Nichols clearly fell in love with these dolphins. His camera lingers on them in ways that suggest their experience of the world is different from humanity’s, but that humanity might benefit from attempting to understand it.
That’s to the film’s benefit, since the plot is pretty much as silly as it sounds, though it makes some pointed commentary about how scientific breakthroughs of even the gentlest kind tend to get weaponized in one way or another. The mood around that plot, however, is considerably richer. Day Of The Dolphin doesn’t entirely work as a film—in the New York Times, Vincent Canby dismissed it as “a Flipper film for adults, a Day Of The Jackal for kids, and a Lassie film for scuba divers of all ages”—but as a cinematic experience filled with striking compositions and haunting dolphin photography, it’s tough to dismiss. Beneath its surface is a head film trying to break out.
Day Of The Dolphin’s trippier elements also connect it to one of its sources of inspiration, too: real-life dolphin communications specialist John C. Lilly. A physician and psychoanalyst, Lilly gained fame for his studies of dolphin communication, inspiring both Merle’s novel and Arthur C. Clarke’s Dolphin Island. He also developed the sensory-deprivation tank and attempted to explore the human consciousness through LSD, studies that took him further and further from the scientific mainstream later in his career (and which inspired Paddy Chayefsky’s Altered States). Day Of The Dolphin taps into a psychedelic yearning to understand the world in ways that transcend the limits of human existence. But the view from outside isn’t always pleasant.
There are a couple of dark jokes at the heart of the 1975 film A Boy And His Dog, an adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s 1969 novella directed by character actor L.Q. Jones. Both are tied to the central relationship between Vic (Don Johnson), a young man living in the wastes of a post-World War IV world, and his telepathic dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire). The most infamous comes from the nasty punchline of the final scene that confirms the bond between Vic and Blood is stronger than that between Vic and Quilla (Susanne Benton), the woman who lures him into the underground settlement of “Topeka,” a re-creation of a turn-of-the-century Midwest paradise, then escapes with him, only to wind up as dog food for a starving Blood.
It’s a final misogynistic twist in a tale dripping with misogyny, one that prompted science-fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ to write a lengthy evisceration whose opening paragraph declared, “I proclaim publicly right here that sending a woman to see A Boy And His Dog is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau.” It’s also self-aware enough to suggest irony has been hardwired into it, though this interpretation might be overly kind. (The film’s awful final line, which Ellison hated, to say nothing of the contrast between Ellison’s typically sharp writing and Jones’ relatively pedestrian direction, makes it a little easier to read it this way in the source material.) Vic leaves a surface world in which women have become an endangered species, and joins an underground world made to resemble an idealized—and deeply patriarchal—American past. Both worlds are, in their own way, awful, and both are awful places to be a woman. Not that the dim-bulb Vic gives much thought to such issues. He begins the film as an unrepentant rapist. He ends it by feeding the first woman to awaken tender thoughts in him to his dog, locking him forever in a post-apocalyptic nightmare version of the boy’s-own-adventure tale suggested by the title. Blood isn’t Vic’s Jiminy Cricket, he’s a shaggy Tinkerbell. The boy will never grow up.
Men like him never do, and the world just gets worse for it: The film captures a sense that the violence of men has already destroyed the world, leaving their barbaric descendants to run out the clock before it all shuts down for good. If anything, the misanthropy of the film overwhelms even the misogyny, since the film’s other dark joke is this: Blood isn’t just smarter than Vic, he’s ultimately the one in charge of their relationship. Apart from Vic’s short-lived abandonment of his dog, it’s Blood who calls the shots, keeping Vic trained by sniffing out the few women still around on the surface, and keeping him in line with the threat of removing his services. He’s conditioned his young charge the way his canine ancestors were conditioned: Via a system of rewards and punishment. In the end, he even makes Vic turn against the best interests of his species by leading him to kill an available woman of breeding age, a denial of a fundamental biological imperative. If Earth has a future, it might be one run by paws rather than hands.
Or maybe its future is even more bizarre than that, some unfathomable hybrid of humanity, the insect world, and cosmic forces beyond our reckoning. That’s the vision offered by 1974’s Phase IV, the sole feature directed by graphic designer Saul Bass. Bass made an indelible mark on the world of film through his designs for posters and title sequences, in a career that stretched from the 1950s to the 1990s. Bass also made significant contributions to films such as West Side Story and Psycho, receiving the vague credit of “pictorial consultant” for the latter, and later suggesting he played a heavier role in the filming of its shower scene than others might have guessed. In 1968, Bass won an Oscar for his short “Why Man Creates,” which he co-wrote with Mayo Simon (who later scripted Futureworld). Through a series of whimsical vignettes, all informed by Bass’ design sensibility, the short probes the titular question. Bass and Simon arrive at no answers, but have fun with the question. (A young USC student named George Lucas served as a second-unit cameraman on the film.) In one striking sequence, a group of pedestrians walk through a busy city street while following, with choreographed precision, the instructions of a street sign that, in addition to blinking “Walk” and “Don’t Walk,” adds “Turn!” and “One! Two!” to the mix. The lattermost prompts the crowd to begin a round of jumping jacks all at once, as if following the instructions of a group brain. They might as well be ants.
Simon and Bass followed that film a few years later with Phase IV, which in bare description sounds like a throwback to the animals-on-the-loose films of yore. (It even ended up as the subject of an early MST3K episode.) At times, the resemblance feels more than accidental. Nigel Davenport plays Ernest Hubbs, Lynne Frederick plays Kendra, and both seem to be playing “Gruff Scientist” and “The Girl” as if attempting to embody the Platonic ideal of these stock characters. Robert Altman favorite Michael Murphy has a little more luck as James Lesko, a younger scientist who also narrates, describing the peculiar state of the world over an opening of outer-space footage scored to foreboding music:
That spring, we were all watching the events in space and wondering what the final effect would be. Astronomers argued over theory while engineers got pretty excited about variables and magnetic fields. Mystics predicted earthquakes and the end of life as we knew it. When the effect came, it was almost unnoticed because it happened to such a small and insignificant form of life.
Cue moodily lit footage of ants in extreme close-up. These were shot by nature photographer Ken Middleham, who a few years earlier worked on the 1971 pseudo-documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle, wherein the fictional Dr. Hellstrom predicts a future dominated by insects. Made with tongue partially in cheek, it was part of a wave of interest in factually shaky but highly imaginative pseudoscience that included everything from Chariots Of The Gods? to In Search Of… to Kohoutek, a comet that became the subject of wild speculation in the early 1970s.
At the time, interest was high in mind-bending theories capable of turning our perception of life on Earth on its ear, and though audiences and critics largely rejected Phase IV, it fits snugly into the spirit of the age. Then it peels off into uncharted territory. As Hubbs and Lesko strike out to the American Southwest to investigate strange, ant-related doings, they encounter bizarre sculptures and a highly organized hive mind more than willing to resort to violence to control its environment. To this end, they burn down a farm, leaving only Kendra as a survivor. In time, all three protagonists take refuge in an isolated research station filled with room-sized computers and whirring equipment covered in dials and buttons. There, they’re held hostage by the super-intelligent colony, and forced to fight back using limited resources.
In form, Phase IV isn’t that different from monster movies of old, though the ants never grow to monstrous size. In execution, it’s much more striking, offering a study in contrasts between ants and humans, and one that doesn’t always reflect favorably on the humans. “The humans have tools, the ants have community” critic Bilge Ebiri wrote of the film. “If you think about it graphically—as Bass must have—it’s a battle between the angular and the organic, between machine and nature.” Bass’ designer’s eye is evident throughout the film, which is filled with one unforgettable image after another: ants crawling over human skin, a human bending to meet an ant eye-to-eye, ants conspiring to defeat a mantis sent to thin their ranks, ants crushed under sculptures of their own creation that look like nothing created by human hands.
Then, in the end, the conflict becomes moot. While making one last attempt to defeat the ants, Lesko descends into a cave in an attempt to defeat their queen. There, Kendra, whom he previously thought dead, emerges from the sand, and it becomes clear to him, as if through a divine revelation, that they’ve been tasked with taking humanity into the next phase of its development. As the sun rises, his voiceover reveals, “We knew then, we were being changed. And made part of their world.” It’s a 2001-inspired ending, one happy to raise questions without answers. And in Bass’ original cut, it was preceded by a long, hallucinatory sequence, which Bass’ Paramount bosses cut. The lost footage—recently rediscovered and shown with the film, which has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years—sheds no further light on the situation, but its excision robbed 1970s science fiction of some of its most stunning images (as evident even in this less-than-perfect video.) Yet even without it, Phase IV remains a flawed stunner, one that, like Day Of The Dolphin and A Boy And His Dog, offered a vision of the universe without humanity at its center. All three films look to the animals with whom we share the planet, and find in the familiar a glimpse at the great unknown.