Jaws is a landmark film. It was the film that started the idea of the summer blockbuster. A film so successful the market was instantly flooded with countless knockoffs, one of which Shocktober explored yesterday with Colin’s review of Kingdom of the Spiders. Why did everyone want to make the next Jaws? Because Jaws showed all you needed was some colorful characters and an animal threat and you could make infinite money.
Orca may not have been the most egregious of these knockoffs–that title belongs to the 1981 pile of Italian schlock Great White, a movie Universal sued into oblivion–but Orca is up there. That being I said, I do sense Orca has something else driving it. A film in search of an identity, but unfortunately it could never swim away from what it truly was a big, wet, salty, knockoff.
The film opens with a surprisingly elegant sequence of orcas swimming set to a haunting score by Ennio Morricone. “Could I have been wrong?” Is Orca a secret masterpiece? No, it’s not. You find that out in the next scene. A whaling vessel led by a stereotypical sea captain played by Richard Harris is in hot pursuit of a great white for a local aquarium. Meanwhile, a marine biologist (Robert Carradine) is studying a pair of orcas nearby.
The two parties converge and the great white attacks the nerdy Robert Carradine, but an orca saves him by killing the shark. This is not nearly as cool as it sounds. So the stereotypical sea captain, who is an Irish Canadian named Nolan, decides an orca would be a way cooler find for the aquarium. I’d love to believe acquiring animals for aquariums is as random as this movie presents it. Also, I love the idea aquariums put their money and trust into hiring deranged sea captains.
It doesn’t take long for Nolan to catch one of the orcas and discover it’s pregnant. The injured orca miscarries a dead baby puppet whale on the poop deck and Nolan hoses it off into the sea, all while Papa whale watches from afar. This scene is all over the place. On one hand, it’s depressing because, you know, dead babies, but then Nolan’s immediate response is attempting to vomit. The sequence is funny, scary, sad, and a perfect example of a film with no clear vision. Orca is trying to be an action movie, a horror movie, and a pro-environmental movie and fails at all three.
Next, the natives of.. wherever this is supposed to be set (there are Native Americans) are pissed at Nolan for killing the pregnant whale. Papa whale is also pissed and starts wreaking havoc on the community. This turn of events leads the natives to ask Nolan to kill Papa whale and restore balance. First, they’re mad at him for killing a whale and then they want another whale dead? Is this movie against or in support of killing whales?
Later, we see a lecture from a whale expert, Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), about how similar whales are to people. In her lecture, Dr. Bedford draws attention to the fact whales look like humans as a fetus, in the womb they have five fingers like a human, communicate like humans and so on. Of course, whales look similar, they’re mammals. I understand whales and humans aren’t that different, whales should be treated as equals. Bedford ends up joining Nolan on his search for the whale afterward, though I’m not sure why as they have entirely different motives.
At this point, I’m just as confused as Nolan. He doesn’t seem to know whether he should kill the orca or not. It doesn’t help that they shoehorn in a laughable scene where Nolan admits his wife and unborn child were killed in a car accident, which is the most convenient parallel I’ve ever seen in a movie. “See? We are just like the whales!” After this Nolan says he won’t kill the whale… But then some of his crew gets killed and he decides he will kill the whale.
By film’s end, everyone dies, except Dr. Bedford because she has some kind of moment with the whale. Then it’s over. Given the resources available I can’t believe the lack of direction. It’s not like this was helmed by a rookie either. Michael Anderson had directed many films before this, including the 1976 cult sci-fi flick Logan’s Run and the 1956 Best Picture Winner Around the World in 80 Days. He drops the ball but he’s not the only one to blame. Liciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati’s script was so uneven, the studios sought out the help of Robert Towne. Yes, the man behind what’s considered the greatest script of all time, Chinatown, tried to keep Orca afloat. Sadly, it sank.
Orca was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, a name that doesn’t carry the mark of quality. In many ways, De Larentiis was the 70s and early 80s answer to Jerry Bruckheimer, both being producers that always tried to capitalize off of flash in the pan cinematic trends and over-the-top violence. What’s crazy to think about is the success of Jaws paved the way for these overproduced blockbusters. Would the world be better off without Jaws? No. It’s that great. But the world would be better off without Orca.