by Matt McKenna
I didn't see the first Dolphin Tale movie starring Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, and a couple kids who look as if were custom built at the Disney Channel Research Lab, but allow me to synopsize the synopsis from Wikipedia: a wild bottlenose dolphin faces death when she loses her tail in a nasty crab trap accident. Fortunately, the hapless creature is rescued by a few plucky humans, christened “Winter,” and given a prosthetic tail that enables her to swim around in her pool and so forth. In a sense, the original movie sounds a bit like a damp, G-rated Robocop with less murder and more playful splashing. Regardless, the synopsis provides the necessary background to understand Dolphin Tale 2, a film about what happens after you strap a plastic flipper to a proud animal and roll credits. Now, it wouldn't be accurate to say Dolphin Tale 2 is a dark film in the way the Christopher Nolan's second Batman film is dark or even how Irvin Kershner's second Star Wars film is dark, but it is certainly not to be taken lightly. I mean, sure, there's a goofy, hardcase pelican who falls in love with a sea turtle, but that doesn't mean the movie doesn't hit upon some weighty subjects. If the viewer can get past the half of the movie that consists mainly of adolescents giggling as they watch animals goof around, they'll experience a film that lays bare the emerging issue of technological innovation begetting technological dependence.
The conflict in Dolphin Tale 2 revolves around finding an aquarium-mate for Winter when her previous geriatric dolphin buddy, Panama, passes away after having lived a long, rewarding life of confined bliss that in no way resembles Blackfish. Adding urgency to the quest to find Winter a dolphin bestie is pressure arriving on two fronts: 1) the USDA will snatch Winter from her Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) residence and deliver her to some hell hole in Texas if a regulation-mandated pal isn't found and 2) the investment firm that put money into the CMA is annoyed that a lonely, depressed Winter can't be shown to the throngs of thong-sandaled families that paid good money to experience the miracle of a disabled dolphin making do.
Whereas the first film appears to put a positive spin on technological innovation due to the fact that Winter's prosthetic fluke is essential to her survival, the sequel walks this positivity almost all the way back. Sure, technology helped heal Winter's crooked spine, allowed her to move in a similar fashion to dolphins with a natural tail, and provided gobs of hope to the people who have seen her swim. But while she may be alive thanks to her prosthesis, the death of Panama leaves her so depressed, she can't bear to wear the thing anymore and won't allow the trainers to attach it to her tail. It's as if Panama's death reminded Winter that all the technology in the world can't free her from the confines of her prison, can't bring her back to her family, and definitely can't save her loved ones from dying at the bottom of a shallow pool. Winter's refusal to wear the plastic fluke raises a tough question: without other dolphin friends to swim with, what is the purpose of the tail at all?
The release of Dolphin Tale 2 coincides nicely with Apple's most recent product announcement where it showed off the Apple Watch, a smartwatch that integrates with the iPhone. When the device is released next year, many of us will have one strapped to our wrists just as Winter the bottlenose dolphin has a prosthetic flipper strapped to her tail. And just as Winter needs her prosthesis to move around, the Apple Watch is ready to help out its human host in that area via maps and GPS directions. While the Apple Watch won't fix a crooked spine the way Winter's fluke fixed hers, it does have a variety activity tracking applications to inspire healthy living. Clearly, the watch isn't yet as vital to a consumer's existence as Winter's flipper is to hers, but it's not difficult to imagine a world in which our watches and phones are so ingrained into our daily routines that we are effectively dependent on them to survive.
How can technology solve a short-term problem and simultaneously create a long-term one? Ask Winter the bottlenose dolphin. Though her prosthetic fluke saved her life, it doomed her to an existence dictated by the whims of her keepers. She may be able to swim gracefully with her prosthesis, but her range is bounded by the walls of her tank. Are we different? Our Internet-connected devices have certainly made our lives easier: The GPS in our phones has made getting lost a rare event, mobile restaurant review sites mean we never have to eat a bad meal, and instant messaging keeps us in constant contact with our loved ones. And now an increasing amount of health data is collected and displayed through our personal electronics, which may promote healthy lifestyle choices. But as these conveniences turn into necessities, we will find ourselves becoming dependent upon them and our range, like Winter's, will be bounded. Where Winter's life was limited to the walls of her tank, we will be limited by the contents of our smartwatch apps. Maybe that's fine. But like Winter, once we require a technology to survive, we can never be released into the wild again.