July 3, 2010

Orca (1977)

THIS WEEK MARKS the 35th anniversary of Jaws, with many movie blogs posting about the greatness of that film, and rightly so.

Since there’s probably not much I could say about Jaws that hasn’t been said already, I’m taking a different approach and reviewing one of the many “giant killer animal” imitators that came in Jaws’ wake (i.e., Sasquatch, Grizzly, Tentacles) and was arguably the most high-profile: 1977’s Orca: The Killer Whale.


While pursuing a great white shark, big-game fishing captain Nolan (Richard Harris) watches a killer whale attack and kill the shark when it threatens to eat the partner of marine biologist Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling). Nolan then decides to set his sights on capturing a killer whale and selling it to a zoo for profit. But when he accidentally harpoons and kills the pregnant mate of a male killer whale, the whale seeks revenge by sinking boats in the harbor where Nolan docks and dining on a few of his crew members.

Bedford tells Nolan that the whale is deliberately seeking him out, wanting him to come back in the ocean. But will Nolan take everyone’s advice in his small fishing town and leave the area, or will he turn and face the killer whale in a to-the-death showdown?


In Orca, everything feels second-rate compared to Jaws – not only in terms of story and execution, but in the quality of the production:
  • poor special effects, even for the ‘70s (the whale’s attack on the shark is especially bad)
  • a lack of continuity that’s laughable at times
  • a sparse, sporadic narrative by Rampling’s character that adds nothing
  • an underdeveloped backstory for Nolan as to why he can relate to the whale’s grief
  • a score by Ennio Morricone that sounds like it could have come from (or could easily fit into) one of his famous spaghetti western soundtracks
As for “Orca” himself, he’s a combination of an animatronic whale and stock footage of killer whales from the now-defunct Marine World (source: IMDb). The close-ups of the whale poking his head out of the water and leaping in the air were obviously shot in a fresh-water tank.

In terms of the cast: Harris brings more energy and gravitas to the role of Nolan than the film deserves, while Rampling does her best to look stern when lecturing Nolan as their love/hate relationship develops. (The cast also includes a post-Cuckoo’s Nest Will Sampson and a pre-10 Bo Derek).

Despite the overall shoddiness of the film, Orca does have some merit: The scenes of the whale pushing his dead mate to shore are touching and sad. Cinematographer Ted Moore captures some fascinating shots of the open sea and the shores of Newfoundland (where Orca was shot). And one way Orca differs from Jaws is that, to an extent, you find yourself rooting for the creature in the ocean, not the humans hunting it down.

Unfortunately, the very point where Orca should pick up steam – when Nolan sets out to sea in pursuit of the whale – is where the film drags, until it reaches an ending that’s strangely both satisfying and anti-climactic.

Overall, Orca only succeeded in doing one thing: making me appreciate Jaws even more (if that’s possible).

  • Despite a lackluster film, Orca had pretty awesome poster art (click to enlarge). Unfortunately, it’s a scene that never happens in the movie.
  • While the whale killing a shark in Orca was probably a dig at Jaws, the makers of Jaws 2 got their revenge: In that sequel, a mauled killer whale washes up on shore, with giant bites out of its body.
  • Bedford claims that killer whales have a “profound instinct for vengeance.” To any marine biologists who might be reading: Is this true? (If it is, that’s pretty amazing.)

Is it suitable for your kids?
I remember seeing Orca at a drive-in as a kid (I would have been about 8), and I think I was in a bit over my head. There are many violent scenes, including:
* After being harpooned, the pregnant whale swims into the boat’s propeller to try and take its own life
* The miscarriage of the baby killer whale onto Nolan’s boat deck is especially traumatic
* The whale dines on several of Nolan’s crew, though with little bloodshed; however, he does bite the leg off one unfortunate crew member, briefly revealing a spurting, bloody stump
* A crew member is killed by an iceberg avalanche

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I can’t imagine the appeal Orca would have to her, especially with a pregnant mammal dying and miscarrying in the same scene. But if she’s looking for high-sea thrills and a giant fish, there’s this movie that came out back in ’75…

Rule #1: Always keep killer whales at arm's length.

* Director: Michael Anderson
* Screenwriters: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati, Robert Towne (uncredited)
* Stars: Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, Bo Derek, Keenan Wynn, Robert Carradine, Scott Walker, Peter Hooten
* MPAA Rating: PG

Buy Orca from Half.com (DVD) >>
Rent Orca from Netflix >>


Anonymous said...

Yeah, the abortion scene was pretty disgusting. Took me by surprise the first time I saw it and was very unpleasant.

Anonymous said...

overall yes this movie is bad but as you said in your review some of it is downright hilarious. the poster ad was in a comic book when i was little and it is a mesmerising illustration. i had to wait 10 years to see it because Orca was never on cable.

i should have just stared at the poster for 2 hrs. would have been better off. poor richard harris.

Watch Movies said...

My grand mam talked lot about this film..I didn't get time to watch this film but now thinking of watching this film.

Anonymous said...

well,an other critic wanna-be that i unable to watch a movie and understand it ina deep way.Is that really the same than jaws? does the song so bad like you say?I wonder what you would coment about The thing (1982) i am sure you would try to make cheap jokes instead of watching it for real.
Just a "maneh" trying to be funny...

FilmFather said...

Thank you, "Anonymous," for your constructive criticism. After reading (and re-reading) your comment, I think what you're trying to say is...

"Well, another wanna-be critic who's unable to watch a movie and understand it in a deep way. Is it really the same as Jaws? Is the score as bad as you say? I wonder what you would say about The Thing (1982). I'm sure you would try to make cheap jokes instead of watching it for real. You're just an idiot trying to be funny..."

Firstly, I never said the score (or "song," as you put it) is bad; I just said it's highly derivative of Morricone's earlier scores.

Secondly, I reviewed The Thing more than a year before I reviewed Orca -- and it's one of my favorite films of all time.


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