“Can you commit a sin against an animal?”
Our “Jaws rip-off” festival rolls on! This week – by request – we’re watching one of the better known and higher profile Creature Features to be released in the wake of the success of Jaws.
I first saw Orca a long time ago – I think when it was on HBO in the 80’s – and I remembered exactly two things about it: Richard Harris was in it, and Bo Derek gets her leg bitten off. I also remember being disappointed, though I couldn’t remember why. I mean, Bo Derek gets her leg chomped – that alone should have elevated it in my admittedly gore-obsessed youth. For whatever reason, though, I filed it away as disappointing and didn’t watch it again for decades.
My memory was fuzzy enough that when I finally did re-watch it a few years back I expected it to be another straight forward Jaws clone. No matter its flaws Orca is more than that, at least. It’s actually much closer to a revenge thriller – only here, the Rambo character is played by the killer whale.
I didn’t much like it on a second viewing, either – I paired it with Grizzly (which I’ll be watching for next week) and its self-serious nature, ponderous pace and lack of any sense of humor left me unimpressed. Though I was astonished at an early scene in which a female orca spontaneously aborts on the deck of a ship. That’s the sort of thing that should have stuck with me and makes me think I probably first saw the movie on network TV, where that scene would have been edited down or completely excised.
It’s always a little nerve-wracking for me to review a film that’s been requested – especially when it’s a film I know I haven’t liked. You don’t want to disappoint the people who asked for the review. At the same time you want to be honest about your experience and view of the film. So. Know going in that I’ve seen the film twice before and didn’t enjoy it either time. I DID go into this viewing thinking maybe I had missed something, and prepared to change my mind if I had a different experience.
I rented Orca on Amazon and the picture quality was excellent – much better than any version I’ve seen previously. It’s not currently free on any streaming service, so rental or purchase is your only digital option. Shout Factory JUST (June 30th) released a Blu-ray, with commentary by a film historian and a trailer as extras.
Orca was, as were so many animal-attack movies released after Stephen Spielberg’s shark-based masterpiece, a cash-in film, made to profit off the popularity of Jaws. Producer Dino De Laurentis tasked Luciano Vincenzoni with creating a film starring a creature “tougher and more terrible” than a great white shark. Based on Arthur Herzog’s novel (the man who also brought us The Swarm), the film was more ambitious than most of its ‘rip-off’ fellows, featuring a cast of serious actors, a soundtrack by the late Ennio Morricone and a boatful of melodrama.
We’re first treated to a credit sequence that’s also the most dry, technical meet-cute in cinema history. As whale song is played and the credits roll we see that two radar echoes – the whales singing, we assume – get closer and closer before finally arriving at the same location. There are several seconds of cathode-ray dots blinking in tandem. Only then does the film reveal two orcas – frolicking together in the water as Morricone’s score swells. There’s some lovely photography here and the shots of the whales leaping out of the water are some decent matte shots. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was the start of one of those Disney nature films, one with a perky narrator talking about the “beauty of nature.”
Then we’re whisked away to meet our human protagonists. Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), a marine biologist researching orcas with her assistant Ken (Robert Carradine) and ship captain Nolan, played by still-the-best-Dumbledore Richard Harris. Nolan is trying to raise enough money to pay off the mortgage on his boat and head back to Ireland. At first his scheme involves trying to capture a great white shark and he and Dr. Bedford first cross paths when his target menaces both the good doctor and her assistant. When he witness an orca kill the great white he changes his target. (Which is probably a good idea – great white sharks don’t live long in captivity). Unfortunately for him, the whale, his crew and the whole town, he completely botches the capture. He ends up killing the female of a bonded pair -by accident – and the whale spontaneously aborts when she’s first captured.
That’s a shocking scene, and no mistake. I MUST have seen an ‘edited for TV’ version way back when. There’s no way this sequence – with the blood, the fetus, and the screaming orca – could have failed to make an impression. Seeing it now, it still has a power to shock, even if the plastic lump hitting the deck with a hollow “thunk” also contains elements of uncomfortable humor.
With his mate and unborn child dead, the surviving orca becomes fixated on Nolan and starts a reign of terror designed to force Nolan back on to the sea, where the killer whale can finally get its revenge.
There are all the elements of a successful exploitation-level Creature Feature here, with animal attacks, gore, Native legends and the kind of anthropomorphic projection that has Nolan’s image “imprinted” on the orcas eye so we know it’s him that the orca blames. All we’re missing is a bumbling authority that refuses to acknowledge the danger the animal poses.
Orca is not interested in being just another Jaws rip-off B-movie, however. It thinks it’s a drama and a thriller, a combination of character piece and Death Wish, with the orca filling in for Charles Bronson. Or maybe it’s more like a reverse Moby Dick, with Nolan as the orca’s white whale. It’s the lack of self-awareness which sinks the film for me (sorry). Everything is just so deadly serious. I mean, we’ve got Charlotte Rampling pontificating about how intelligent orcas are and Richard Harris (still-the-best-Marcus-Aurelius ) giving a monologue about how he empathizes with the whale because a drunk driver killed his own wife and child. These are presented straight alongside killer whale sequences shot at different times of day and with different whales – some obviously in a tank – that just don’t have the same gravitas, despite Morricone’s score.
In the hands of some good character actors – Tiffany Bolling and Lee Majors, for instance – this might have been just over-the-top enough to work. As it is, the whole film ends up too overwrought, to be honest, and it’s really more than an ‘animal attack’ movie can bear. It’s ambitious – but it’s still the lumpy orca fetus and Bo Derek getting her leg bit off that I’m going to remember years from now, not O’Toole’s haunted gaze as the whale leads them deep into the arctic ice fields.
After Nolan loses his first mate, Novak (Keenan Wynn, last seen here getting his legs munched on by Piranha), he refuses to re-enter the water. The orca isn’t having it, of course, and sinks a number of boats while leaving Nolan’s Bumpo untouched. This leads the townfolk to suggest, in a vaguely menacing way, that Nolan might want to leave the whales alone from now on. Nolan, suffering from guilt and existential angst, is only too happy to agree. Unfortunately, the orca has different ideas. After several attacks on the town – including an improbable explosive set piece with a fuel line, an oil lamp and the tanks above town – the villagers themselves are the ones that drive Nolan and his crew back onto the water. The human beings aren’t evil – they’re just selfish and short-sighted. And to be fair, another day or two and the whale would probably have figured out how to lurk in back alleys, knifing people at random.
The whale leads Nolan, and a bunch of people who exist primarily to be killed by the orca, deep into the ice fields for no reason I can fathom. It does look pretty good, with the Bumpo frosted over and icebergs everywhere – all the more impressive for being constructed on-location in Newfoundland. There will be a final confrontation between Nolan and the whale, but by this point I really wanted the whole thing to be over almost as much as they did.
The Bottom Line
Orca is too heavy to be much fun and too goofy a premise to be taken seriously. It does look good, and both Harris and Rampling give it their all, but the combination of character drama and low-budget animal attack film are two great tastes that don’t work together. There’s some interesting stuff there – and it gets points for trying to be a deeper creature feature than normal – but it’s just not as good a film as it wants to be. And poor Bo Derek.
So, third time was NOT the charm. I know a bunch of folks love this movie, but I just can’t seem to get there.