Lionsgate // 2009 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // April 5th, 2011
Man is their biggest threat and their only hope.
Animal brutality? Long-standing Japanese tradition? Both? Neither?
In The Cove, filmmaker Louie Psihoyos goes to Japan to secretly document a controversial dolphin harvesting activity. On the surface, the result is an engrossing piece of documentary filmmaking. However, when all is said and done, what's the message of this undeniably non-objective and non-subtle piece of work?
In the small village of Taiji, Japan, the local fishermen capture thousands of dolphins a year. Some of the captured dolphins are sold to trainers and seaquariums. Representatives come from all over the globe in order to hand pick a dolphin from Taiji. But many dolphins are not selected. They not released back to the sea. Instead, they are corralled into a secluded cove, killed, and sold for meat.
Richard O'Barry, former dolphin trainer for the television show Flipper, is determined to stop the killing. He and Psihoyos enlist a crack team of environmentalists, free divers, and some talent from Industrial Light & Magic to record the proceedings and reveal it to the world.
Yes, dolphins are cute. They seem to be playful. And they appear, to many people, to exhibit signs of intelligence and self-awareness. However, are they so different from every other non-human animal (e.g., cows, chicken, and pigs) to deserve special treatment? The protagonists in the The Cove believe they do. Indeed, they must believe this, for if they don't, the film would largely fall flat.
On a superficial level, The Cove is a superb piece of storytelling. It methodically makes its case and builds suspense to an absolutely horrifying and disturbing climax. The audience is treated to undercover police officers trailing the film crew and questioning O'Barry. There are intimidating fishermen who yell at Psihoyos's team with intense anger and take pictures of them. Further, the International Whaling Commission, an international body developed to ensure a sustainable whaling industry is revealed to be a toothless organization where the votes of poor nations are bought and sold.
Of course, there are also the tension filled night operations where the team plants audio devices and thermal cameras concealed in fake rocks and under water to capture the slaughter.
It's all very exciting and filled with suspense. As the water turns blood red and the porpoises fail about it is difficult not to want to make it stop. Psihoyos et al are counting on this kind of viewer disgust and emotional response to the dolphin's plight to turn the tide of public opinion on their side. However, when you stop and think about it, the secluded killing spot of Taigi is really just an outdoor abattoir. And the activities that go on there are no different from the thousands of abattoirs that exist all over the world to slaughter other animals for meat. How is this any different?
So, to be consistent, The Cove should condemn all forms of animal killing, right? Wrong, they do not. The cows and chickens and pigs don't matter. The reason for this is that they believe, with little evidence, that dolphins are self-aware and very intelligent. For example, O'Barry states that he believes that captivity caused one of the Flipper dolphins to "commit suicide." This is an unverifiable assertion based on O'Barry's emotional attachment to the animal. Similar stories are told by other activists, including a surfer who claims that a dolphin saved him from a shark attack. This is facile stuff and no different from what you hear from pet owners talking about their animals. It's not strong enough to save the dolphins.
The Blu-ray presentation is pretty much flawless. The 1080p/1.78:1 presentation is pretty much flawless because most of the film was recorded with high-def cameras. The colors are vivid. The image is detailed and sharp, aside from some hidden camera footage, such as O'Barry being interviewed by the police, and some stock footage. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is similarly impressive.
The extras are the same as those included on the standard DVD release: clips about the hidden cameras used, a commentary track, some deleted scenes, a featurette on free diving, the trailer, and a documentary about mercury poisoning.
There is a legitimately important issue that is raised by The Cove: mercury levels in seafood. The film makes the case that dolphin, tuna, and whale meat contain high levels of mercury. Of course, mercury is a toxic substance that has deleterious effects on humans, especially children. Thus, if the claim is true, there is a very clear reason to stop the mass killing of dolphins for meat: It is toxic.
To establish this to be a fact rather than conjecture would require simple testing. And, to its credit, the film suggests that there is evidence of toxic dolphin meat being sold as whale meat. Again, this is a real public health issue that, if true, can be objectively established. Alas, the film pursues this angle only too briefly, such as through an interview with a group of Japanese scientists who refuse to eat tuna because they believe some tests they conducted showed the mercury levels to be unsafe for consumption. This should have been the focus of the film, instead of showing blood saturated water and people sneaking through fences in the middle of the night.
There is a plausible and powerful case and film to be made to stop the harvesting of dolphins and other sea creatures for human consumption. It is a case that would be relatively easy to confirm and document. Such a case would lead to consumer and government outrage that would lead to real change. However, The Cove misses the boat on this one because it gets carried away by an emotional attachment to dolphins. It's a shame.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site