Michael Anderson, 1977
Starring: Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, Bo Derek, Robert Carradine
"As parents they are exemplary, better than many human beings. And like human beings, they have a profound instinct... for vengeance."
I never thought I would write these words, but I think animals attack month is really exhausting me. And Orca is just... well, like Tentacles, White Buffalo, and The Swarm, it’s an attempt by a major studio to cash in on the success of Jaws by churning out an absurd script, dumping money into A-list actors who simply seem bewildered about the film they’re in, and using a combination of questionable creature effects. Orca rises slightly above the fold because of its insane and somewhat complicated premise.
A sea captain is trying to make money by capturing a great white shark. This goes awry and he is almost killed, but is rescued by a killer whale. Nolan, the captain, becomes obsessed with capturing a killer whale instead. That’s gratitude for you. In a gruesome scene, he accidentally captures a pregnant female, who tries to kill herself, miscarries, and then dies. The enraged, grief stricken male orca vows bloody revenge on Nolan and his crew and, soon, a small coastal village. The village wants Nolan to hunt and kill the whale, but a whale expert, Dr. Bedford, gets involves and educates Nolan, encouraging him to leave the animal alone. And because science wasn’t enough, a local Native American gets involved and explains the spiritual and instinctual reasons for leaving the whale unmolested. The whale causes massive amounts of destruction, forcing Nolan to confront the mammoth, (justifiably) angry animal.
The great (and often intoxicated) Richard Harris is one of the chief reasons to see Orca. In addition to doing almost all his own stunts, he has a Moby Dick-like arc to his character, where he relates to the whale because his wife and child were also killed (by a drunk driver, not another lunatic seaman). Plus it’s Richard Harris. I could probably watch him read the dictionary and not get bored. The beautiful Charlotte Rampling does her best to be serious as the sensitive whale expert, Dr. Bedford, though there’s not a lot she can do to save the role. Will Sampson (The White Buffalo, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) appears as an unfortunately stereotypical Native American, Dr. Bedford’s counterpart. The lovely Bo Derek makes her film debut here and impressively thrashed around with a broken leg in one memorable scene. All the actors really do their best, but they can’t fight past absurd, laughable dialogue and a silly premise.
Though some rubber whales were used as props, most shots of the titular orca are of a trained killer whale from the San Francisco aquarium. Sadly, this meant that a lot of the shots are split and the whale does not seem to be convincingly part of the action. If you can get past this, some of the attack scenes are pretty impressive and the early scene of the female orca miscarrying and trying to kill herself is rather brutal. If Orca succeeds at anything, it does manage to convincingly anthropomorphicize the whale to the extent that he feels like a character. As a result his revenge is very satisfying.
Oddly, there is a beautiful score from Ennio Morricone, which deserves to be heard even if you don’t want to see the film. It certainly provides an added element of gravity and pathos to what is unavoidably a ridiculous film. Director Michael Anderson (Around The World In 80 Days, Shake Hands With The Devil, Logan’s Run) does his best and I think most of the blame has to go to producer Dino De Laurtentiis, ruiner of so many things. After that King Kong remake, someone should have put a stop to his animals attack films. Though he hired Sergio Leone collaborators Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati to write Orca, not even they could save it. Though one has to wonder exactly how De Laurentiis made that pitch.
Orca is available as a basic DVD from Paramount. I don’t know if I can recommend it, but if you enjoyed Tentacles, you should probably watch it. This movie really, really wants to take itself seriously and is quite enthusiastic, which inadvertently results in more laughs. You could do a lot worse as far as aquatic horror is concerned.