With killer whales as the main attraction to water theme parks like “Sea World” and the stars of family films like “Free Willy”, you never once get that same feeling of fear and dread that comes from sharks, even though killer whales can be just as dangerous, if not more so. Back in the 1970’s, horror movies were going through a trend where mankind’s worst enemy wasn’t a supernatural monster, but creatures already present in nature, and after the massive success of films like “The Birds” and “Jaws”, countless others tried to follow in their success. The 1977 picture titled “Orca” is often regarded as the first in a long line of “Jaws” rip offs, however it’s far more like “Moby Dick” in both tone and theme. This makes it stand apart from other movies banking on the success of “Jaws”, but does that make it a good movie on its own, let’s dive in and find out.
Our seafaring horror story begins appropriately enough with a Great White Shark attacking a group of scuba divers. The shark is also being hunted by a group of fisherman and their Captain Nolan played by the late great Richard Harries. Before the shark makes a meal out of the team, a killer whale takes out the shark with one blow, as if to say “Screw you Jaws, I’m the real danger in the sea”. The hunters quickly lose interest in hunting sharks and soon set their sights on caging a whale. In an effort to capture one whale, the captain unintentionally slays a female killer whale that was with child, and the male (her mate) looks on and silently declares vengeance on the man who poached her. As the captain returns to his village, the whale follows him and quickly begins terrorizing the small town in an effort to draw out his enemy. Realizing that he brought this on himself and the village, Captain Nolan sets out to sea to face the killer whale on his terms.
For the most part, the film uses a professionally trained killer whale and it’s a big treat to see a real animal in a film as opposed to fake looking animatronics or CGI creatures. It’s also kind of eerie to see such a peaceful and adorable creature like a killer whale turned into the central monster of the film. There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie in a which a marine biologist gives a lecture on Orcas, what their names mean, their high brain functions, their brut strength and their predatorily side, which is a nice set up. This is also a rare case in which you find yourself cheering more for the animal then any of the human characters. Whenever something negative happens to this whale, it just makes you feel sick, and the death of its mate is a genuinely heart breaking scene. Also when the whale attacks the village, it doesn’t attack random people on the beach the same way killer sharks in movies always do, this Orca actually dose things on a much larger scale. He attacks an industrial plant that’s just off the shore, which erupts into a fiery explosion. Captain Nolan’s house is also conveniently on the docks, which allows our whale to break all the pillars underneath and sinks his house ... yeah, this whale actually sinks an entire house. It’s incredibly over the top, but it’s also a lot more fun than just having random people get picked off at a beach. He also sinks several ships in a harbor, with the exception of the one owned by Captain Nolan, that’s his way of calling him out.
While I can’t make an argument that this is a great movie or anything really special, I do like that the film at least tries to interject themes and maybe even substance into its average story of a killer animal. The first issue raised in the film is “who’s the real monster”, the whale obviously wasn’t a rouge killing machine the same way Jaws was, and it probably wouldn’t have done anything if the captain didn’t slay it’s family, making him come off as more of a monster then our killer whale. However, while Captain Nolan’s actions were bad, the man himself isn’t evil, he acknowledges that he made a mistake, wishes that he could take it back and wants to set things right. This leads into the next theme of the movie “history repeating itself, and people making the same mistake again.” At one point in the film, Captain Nolan relays a back-story in which a drunk driver crashed into his car and killed his pregnant wife, an incident that shattered his spirit. In a sense, the Captain became that drunk driver when he killed the whales pregnant mate. Usually in an animal attack movie you’ll have one good man versus one evil monster, but “Orca” isn’t so one sided, both players are victims of random unfortunate acts of life and now vengeance has blackened both their souls, transforming them into monsters.
Now even with all that stated, let’s be honest, many of us have seen other films that not only had these exact same themes and subjects but have also done them a million times more effectively. While the themes of vengeance corrupting an innocent soul, history repeating itself and the nature of the beast are all present in this movie, the material just doesn’t stick with you as well as it should, at least not in the contents of this film. I give the movie credit for being a little different from your usual animal attack movie, but that doesn’t make it great either, just slightly above average. I will say that some of the technical aspects of the film are done very well, there are some memorable visuals and some terrific cinematography. Plus the musical score composed by Ennio Morricone dose a great job conveying an atmosphere that’s both beautiful and haunting all at once, rather than just being eerie the way John Williams classic “Jaws” theme was. Even the cast dose a decent job, although many of the supporting actors like Bo Derek and Keenan Wynn have little to nothing to do in the film. Richard Harries of course is best known for his roles like King Arthur in the 1967 musical “Camelot”, and for playing Dumbledore in the first two “Harry Potter” movies. It’s kind of strange to see him in a film like this, but he plays the part of Captain Nolan fairly well. His Irish accent is a little distracting sense he’s an English actor but he’s clearly committed to the role, and he even took offence to the critics who paned this movie for being a “Jaws” rip-off.
The passing is slow and steady, giving just enough to hold your attention but not enough to come off as really exciting. In the final act, our captain hits the seas with a small group of people that get picked off one at a time. This is the closest the film gets to feeling like “Jaws”, but once again the finally dose something completely different that works great on its own. After hunting the beast at sea for days, the Orca leads them to an icy area in the North Arctic where the final showdown takes place. It’s an awesome setting for the climax, and it allows our characters to cover more ground as the boat sinks and our survivors run on icy terrain with the whale biting at their heels. Seriously, it can just pop-up at any time. Spoiler alert, but the ending actually has a twist, the whale gets his vengeance by killing the captain and swims off into the sunset triumphantly. Yeah, usually the human slays the animal and is victories, but this is a rare case in which the killer animal wins. The marine biologist played by Charlotte Rampling does survive, but that’s it. It’s not a bad ending, but it does leave you feeling kind of empty at the same time.
While the movie was both a box office and critical disaster, it has gained cult status among fans of “man versus nature” movies. Personally, I admire the movie more for what it aimed to be, rather then what it became on film. I think “Orca” has some really good concepts, a captivating musical score, maybe even a touch of substance, and definitely enough material to separate itself from being a cheap “Jaws” rip-off, but it’s certainly no masterpiece the same way “Moby Dick” was a literary marvel. It’s definitely not a film you’ll think about after word or care to re-watch again, but I think it’s better than what its reputation suggests. At best, it’s just okay, and I do like this films overall take on the premise of a killer beast from the ocean. The action scenes are definitely exciting enough, but when all is said and done, it’s a mostly average animal attack film that doesn’t offer much and has little to no re-watch value. If you’re curious enough, give it a single viewing but don’t expect the experience to stick with you after words.
I give “Orca” 2 ½ stars out of 5.