I’ve mentioned the effect Steven Spielberg’s Jaws had on cinema more times than there are fish in the sea, but while the many also-rans and ripoffs essentially kept the exact same plot and switched the breed of animal, 1977’s Orca even managed to sway the audiences sympathies on the side of the animal that was doing all the marauding. Imagine Jaws, but instead of Bruce the shark being a child-chewing, aquatic monster, the voracious, title beast was on a rip-roaring, road to revenge to avenge it’s murdered mate and child – think Charles Bronson with a blow hole; Death Fish, if you will (yes, I know killer whales are mammals, but I’m trying to make a pun, dammit). So strap in as we set sail with a bizarrely star laden cast and a truly harrowing premise as we examine a killer whale movie that’s somehow more upsetting experience than watching Blackfish on downers.
Swaggering Irish/Canadian fisherman Nolan is desperate to raise funds to pay the mortgage on his boat and return to Ireland, so he’s naturally prone to engaging in morally questionable schemes in order to raise as much as he can as fast as he can. This has led to his latest venture as he and his crew are off the coast of their fishing village in Nova Scotia trying to harpoon a great white shark to capture and sell for a local aquarium for a boat-load of dough. However, after witnessing the might of a benevolent killer whale as it fucks up the shark as it bothers a couple of marine biologists in a dinghy, Nolan switches his attention to capturing one of these majestic beasts instead and approaches one of the biologists, the attractive Rachel Bedford, and starts pumping her for information about them.
However, his latest get-rich-quick-by-harming-animals-scheme goes spectacularly awry when instead of harpooning a male orca, he misses and snares a female who subsequently tangles herself in the wire, messes herself up on the boat’s propeller and, worst of all, messily miscarries it’s unborn calf all over the deck of Nolan’s boat much to the horror of everybody involved. However, none are as affected as horribly as the female’s mate whose reaction to this atrocity is to go on a kill crazy rampage to get hid revenge and he starts off by getting his teeth around a member of Nolan’s crew. From there, the orca demonstrates some incredible planning skills as he manages to not only destroy numerous fishing boats and sever gas and power lines to the village, but he drives away all the fish in the area which turns all the locals against Nolan. Eventually, the maiming of another crew mate finally convinces Nolan to go out and fight the animal, and so with a rag tag group, he forges out to slay his aquatic nemesis in a battle that’ll take them all the way to the frozen waters of the Strait of Belle Isle where they stage their final stand off.
Essentially the Requiem For A Dream of killer animal movies – as in it’s really, really fucking depressing – Orca: The Killer Whale blends bits of Jaws and Moby Dick into a messy, ecological fable that seems weirdly unsure of who the hero of the film actually is.
The movie insists that we should be terrified of the vengeful whale as it carries out it’s watery terror campaign as screeching strings follow the black dorsal fin as it glides around the bay, but in actuality it’s Richard Harris’ crusty and utterly amoral Captain Nolan who is the real villain as he cheerfully rapes and pillages the natural world in order to score a quick buck. Yet the film attempts some sort of poignancy when the movie tries to draw parallels with the whale and its abuser when it brings up the fact that Nolan emphasizes with it because he lost his wife and child to a drunk driver years before. Harris does what he can to make Nolan somewhat tolerable with his particular charm and the film takes steps not to colour him too much in a heroic light – but at the end of the day, whether he meant to kill the mother and catf or not – he was still out on the open sea hoping to put one of the whales in captivity by shooting it with a pointy bit of metal on a wire. Similarly, his crew, made up of Piranha’s Keenan Wynn, original Dr. Strange Peter Hooten and (for some reason) 10’s Bo Derek, also find it tough to elicit sympathy for them, even when the whale bites the odd leg off here and there.
Even Charlotte Rampling’s cetologist, who is rightfully horrified about the whole deal, is perfectly willing to stick with Nolan presumably for no other reason than she fancies a bit of rough.
However, while the movie blunders through its questionable characters motivations and a surprisingly meandering plot, I have to admit I was impressed by how grim the filmmakers are willing Orca and after it bloodies the nose of Spielberg’s razor-toothed masterpiece by immediately having it’s title mammal make short work of a great white shark, we’re treated/subjected to a scene that can only be described as I Spit On Your Grave for whales. Almost unintentionally funny in how nasty it truly is, the bit where the sying female disgorges its offspring all over the deck, only for a grossed out Richard Harris to hose it off the boat like he’s cleaning up bird shit is fantastically crass also it admittedly does set up everything that happens after fairly succinctly.
If you thought the shark from Jaws: The Revenge put in the overtime to travel to the Bahamas to bite off its pound of flesh, you literally won’t believe how far this orca goes to goad Harris into a bout of mano a whaleo. The movie goes out of its way to go on about how smart killer whales are, but this thing pulls some borderline James Bond shit by taking out utilities to the village, fucking with the town economic structure and even causing explosions to rock the harbour – with smarts this high I’m surprised it doesn’t also manipulate the stock market to gain funds to hire a fucking hitman. I shit you not, I one point it even goads Nolan on by beckoning him out with its tail fin like he’s Morpheus from the sodding Matrix.
Directed by Michael Anderson (he of Logan’s Run and The Dam Busters) the production values match the cast and the movie even comes with a lush Ennio Morricone score, but even this can’t Orca sinking under the weight of its confused melodrama, even if the movie ends with (spoiler) the orca finally getting its revenge with a sick, Mortal Kombat style finishing move.
Memorable for arguably all the wrong reasons, Orca, for all it’s faults is hard to shake (screeching orca foetus being killed by fucking Dumbledore tend to have that effect), but when it’s all said and done, its merely yet another flounderer in Jaws’ unstoppable wake.