During our King Kong Retrospective, we talked about Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis’ obsession with producing a blockbusting creature epic to surpass Jaws. De Laurentiis’ 1976 Kong movie is by far the most well-known of these attempts, but hardly the only one worth looking at. Even before his version of Kong had hit theatres, De Laurentiis hatched a plan to beat his perceived cinematic rival on its own turf. He ordered producer Luciano Vincenzoni to “find a fish tougher and more terrible than the Great White,” and the wheels were set in motion for 1977’s Orca.
People young enough to remember video stores may recall passing over Orca in the horror section, probably after immediately dismissing it as a Jaws knockoff – which it is, no question, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a fascinating movie. The first indication that there’s more going on than meets the eye comes when you take a look at some of the people who worked on the film. Among the cast are Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling, two actors not quite known for schlocky exploitation flicks. The script comes courtesy of Luciano Vincenzoni and Segio Donati, who had previously penned The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, respectively. In the director’s chair is Michael Anderson, fresh off the success of Logan’s Run (to say nothing of The Dam Busters and Around the World in 80 Days), and to add another link to Spaghetti Westerns, the legendary Ennio Morricone provides the music.
So, with all this talent under the hood, it’s no surprise that Orca is more than the cash-in exploitation you’d expect. It’s by no means great, but it does manage the relatively rare feat of elevating itself above pure entertainment, while still being a fun, compelling creature feature.
Richard Harris plays Nolan, a professional shark hunter – think Quint, but more stable. After a chance encounter with an Orca whale, Nolan hits on the idea of selling one to an aquarium for big money, and so sets out to catch one alive. Despite the protests of Rampling’s Rachel, a marine biologist Nolan meets, he and his small crew head to sea in search of Killer Whales. As you would expect, it goes spectacularly badly, with a female Orca and her unborn calf meeting a really grisly end by accident. The female’s mate watches all this, and (nonverbally) swears revenge. Yes, the Orca swears revenge.
That’s where Orca sets itself apart from other “nature attacks” movies. Rather than nature deciding seemingly at random that mankind’s days are numbered, in this case a creature of the natural world is out for revenge for a specific incident. An incident that, it should be added, isn’t the direct result of any real malice or evil. Nolan isn’t a bad guy – just shortsighted and greedy. Rather than a simple monster movie, Orca unfolds as a revenge story, one with no real villain. You can root for either side and be totally justified.
While King Kong turned the operatic pathos and drama up to eleven, Orca keeps on cranking it until the knob breaks off. Every moment is soaked in gravitas and severity, all set to Morricone’s genuinely beautiful and haunting score. Of course, the melodrama of the movie lends an element of the comedic to the proceedings when you mix it the sheer ridiculousness of a lot of what goes on. For starters, Orca is on a serious mission to convince its audience just how awesome Orcas are, and it isn’t afraid to go well into the realm of fantasy to complete that mission. The Orca is introduced to the film when it swims into a great white so hard that the shark flies out of the water and dies instantly, a hilarious if shamefully transparent attempt to give a middle finger to Jaws. Another early scene has Rampling’s character delivering some pretty out-there claims about the Orca’s power, all of it delivered with the gravitas of a Sunday sermon the morning after a football riot. Did you know that the Orca’s song contains more information than the Bible? Or that compared to Orcas, humans are mentally retarded? Well, neither of those things are true, but if you try and correct Charlotte Rampling she’ll stare into your soul so hard it catches fire, so best to just go with it.
And then there’s the Orca’s rampage itself, which stretches the limits of how much actual damage you’d expect a Killer Whale can do. It sinks every boat in the harbor except Nolan’s, putting him at odds with the local fisherman’s union. Not long after, it blows up the local power plant, leading to cinema’s only example of “cool whales don’t look at explosions” – and that’s not even getting into the people who meet their end at the Orca’s jaws.
It all sounds pretty silly, but Orca plays everything out with grave severity, turning what by all rights should be a goofy monster movie into a grim parable of revenge. In that regard, it works surprisingly well. Obviously Orca doesn’t re-write the book on revenge narratives, but it’s more nuanced and even-handed than you’d ever expect. As previously mentioned, at no point does it feel like a straight-up good guy vs bad guy scenario, but neither does it ever become a “revenge destroys” situation. The Orca’s actions against Nolan might just be justified, and so might Nolan’s eventual decision to destroy the whale before it hurts anyone else. The film’s ending (which isn’t what you’d expect) doesn’t offer any moral conclusion to speak of, not even after a victor emerges. That kind of moral ambiguity is hard to come by, doubly so in post-Jaws creature features.
Of course, for its grandiose tone and surprising lack of a conclusive answer to the moral dilemmas it poses, Orca still isn’t a great film. There’s a lot of mismatched editing, and a wholly unnecessary voiceover by Rampling that only shows up twice in the whole movie, both times to exposit on things we really didn’t need clarifying. Still, it’s so singular in its tone of operatic melodrama mixed with goofy monster movie antics, a naked attempt to out-Jaws Jaws, packed with breathless assurances that an Orcas are the coolest most badass animals ever. Of course it doesn’t beat Jaws; don’t be silly. But when you shoot for the moon, you can still wind up hitting pretty high, and Orca certainly hits a high mark in its own strange way.