If you read comic books in the summer of 1977, there’s no way you didn’t know about Orca. Despite everything that nature — and SeaWorld — could teach us, it was time to meet a predator even more deadly to man than the great white shark. To quote Neko Case: “You know they call them killer whales.”
Orca raises the Jaws rip-off stakes: if the name Orca can be Quint’s boat, here, it can be an entire movie. Dino De Laurentiis called writer Luciano Vincenzoni (he also wrote The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) in the middle of the night and told to find a fish tougher and more terrible than the great white to make a movie that could go up against Spielberg’s. Vincenzoni’s brother told him all about the killer whales and the rest is scumtastic movie history.
Directed by Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run, Doc Savage), Orca is the kind of movie that critics have assaulted for years. I’m here to tell you that every single one of them is wrong. It’s a completely ridiculous film, a shameless reboot of both Jaws and Moby Dick, but by no means is it not entertaining as hell. And it has an incredible Ennio Morricone score, something that so many fish films could only wish they aspired to.
Captain Nolan (Richard Harris, who nearly died doing his own stunts and also would grow enraged if anyone dared compare this movie to any other film) catches fish and marine animals so that he can pay off his boat. His crew is looking for a great white, which comes after crewmember Ken (Robert Carradine, Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds). An orca saves Ken and Nolan decides to repay its kindness by capturing it. After he harpoons the whale, he learns that he’s killed its mate, which miscarries and drops a fetus onto the deck of the ship that the callous captain hoses off into the ocean while our titular hero/villain/sea mammal screams in anguish. This is when you wonder: how did this movie get a PG rating?
Novak (Keenan Wynn, The Dark, Piranha), another crew member, cuts the female loose and its mate drags her dead body to shore. The villagers all rise up against the crew, who demand that Nolan kill the orca, who has gone wild and is ruining local fishing. When Nolan refuses to put the fish out of its misery, it retaliates by sinking all of the fishing boats and breaking all of the town’s fuel lines, because of course killer whales can hold grudges.
That’s what brings Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), a whale expert, into the movie. She believes that orcas are like humans, a fact that Nolan can understand. He sees himself as one of the whales, as his wife and unborn child were killed by a drunk driver. He promises not to fight the whale, but it kills Novak, attacks Nolan’s house and then bites off the leg of his injured worker, Annie (Bo Derek in her film debut).
Nolan and his crew, including Paul (Peter Hooten, who was also in Derek’s first actual filmed movie, Fantasies, as well as the 1970’s Dr. Strange TV movie and Just a Damned Soldier with Mark Gregory), all take off after the orca, along with Native American Jacob Umilak (Will Sampson, the magical Native American in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Poltergeist II). That’s when the orca goes buckfutter and wipes out nearly everyone by either grabbing them, biting them, crushing them and tossing icebergs at the boat.
The orca throws Nolan all the lace like a ragdoll, killing him, but leaving Bedford alive. We watch as Nolan sinks into the water in a crucified pose and the killer whale decides to swim under the ice. Now, there’s some conjecture here: is the killer whale trapped or has it decided that with its revenge complete, all it can do is die when faced with the path or revenge that it has wrought? I can see the poetry of this thought, but then I realize that I’ve just watched a film filled with no subtlety whatsoever, so perhaps the orca swam on, discovered a new mate and remains ready to wipe out all of humanity at a moment’s notice.
Orca is everything I love about movies: it’s big and dumb and bloody. It’s the kind of movie a fine actor like Richard Harris chews the scenery with just as much viciousness as a killer whale devours one of Bo Derek’s shapely gams. It also takes shark films to the next level. Every single one of the humans in this movie are amongst the dumbest people ever, doomed by the fact that they even known Captain Nolan. The moment he hoses orca’s son into the icy waters, he’s sealed his fate. This is one of the few films where you root for the beast and savor its revenge.
You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be amazed at Bo’s bloody stump. I want more people to love this movie even a fourth as much as I do.