Richard Harris - Captain Nolan
Charlotte Rampling - Professor Rachel Bedford
Will Sampson - Umilak
Peter Hooten - Paul
Bo Derek - Annie Nolan
Keenan Wynn - Gus Novak
Scott Walker - Swain
Robert Carradine - Ken
Genre - Horror/Thriller/Bad Animals/Killer Whales
Running Time - 92 Minutes
An orca and his pregnant mate are living their peaceful lives under the sea. That is, until, a ship captain named Nolan (Richard Harris) wants to hunt a killer whale after seeing the orca murder a great white shark [TAKE THAT, JAWS!]. During a hunt, Nolan shoots a harpoon into the female, pregnant orca. Not wanting her child to be raised in captivity, she self-aborts her pregnancy as Nolan and his crew capture her. When Nolan realizes what he's done, he's traumatized by his actions. Unfortunately, the orca has watched what Nolan did to his family, wanting revenge.
A biologist named Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), who has been studying the lives of killer whales, informs Nolan that the orca is almost as intelligent [maybe even more so] as human beings. She tells him that the orca is very monogamous and will want personal revenge if a loved one is taken away from them. While Nolan has trouble believing this, he starts to realize its truth when the orca begins sending him warnings by destroying the coastal region and injuring [and even killing] some of his crew members. The townspeople, realizing that Nolan is behind this, want him to grow some balls and confront the orca once and for all.
After realizing that the orca was a better family man than he was [Nolan's family was tragically killed by a drunk driver, but he didn't try to get any justice from it], Nolan decides to finally confront the orca - who leads him, Rachel, and a Native American expert of nature named Umilak (Will Sampson) to the polar caps for a final confrontation.
ORCA was one of the many films that jumped the success bandwagon of JAWS, which was the first major summer blockbuster two years prior to this film's release. And while Steven Spielberg's classic killer shark film is still a masterpiece and the best killer animal film out there, ORCA isn't all that terrible either. Don't get me wrong - it's not even in the same league as JAWS in any way. But it's not as bad as many claim it is, and tells its story marginally well enough to be memorable and entertaining at times.
- The cinematography. JAWS is a beautiful film in terms of its direction and its picture quality. While the direction is a bit uneven in ORCA, I do have to say that I love the cinematography here by Ted Moore. While the picture does get a bit grainy during the final act at the polar ice caps, the rest of the film is pretty stunning to look at. In particular, the underwater moments which were directed by Folco Quilici. I'm not sure of the ratio between shots involving real and fake killer whales, but these scenes were quite lovely to look at. It made the sea seem quite peaceful and the whales more sympathetic, as the beauty was ruined by human beings who wanted to hunt them down. I thought the settings were filmed well and the picture quality was top notch for the most part.
- The characterization of the orca. I think what sets ORCA away from JAWS is how the animals are treated in their respective films. JAWS was always seen as a threat - a killer great white who injured and murdered innocent victims because it could. Brody was the clear protagonist, as he wanted to save his town from the shark. In ORCA, it's very much the opposite. Nolan is clearly the antagonist, as he wants to hunt down an orca because he could, not realizing the consequences of his actions until it's too late. It's the orca, who's family was ripped away from him by a selfish human, who we feel for. In this sense, it's the killer whale that's the most human in ORCA.
ORCA, in a lot of ways, is pretty much Moby Dick - but done the opposite way. Instead of Ahab chasing the whale, it's the whale chasing Ahab. The orca is the one with the real story arc in this film. He's the first character we see in the film, along with his pregnant mate. It's his torment we feel as his mate is harpooned. It's his anger we feel when the fetus falls out of his mate, crushing his dreams of a family forever. We want this orca to get revenge on Nolan for destroying his peaceful life. Anytime the orca does damage to and around Nolan, we feel somewhat justified by his actions. The whale is the innocent in the story and should have been left alone. It's like DEATH WISH, but with a killer whale instead of Charles Bronson. An eye for an eye, right?
Honestly, the scenes without the orca involved are the slowest in the film because the other characters aren't as developed. I'll get to that issue shortly. The fact is that the orca is the protagonist of the film. The music that sweeps and swoons whenever he's around make the audience feel something for this creature. The actions the orca makes before and after his mate's death make him more human than any of the other characters in the film. We identify with this creature because he does what we all want to do in a similar situation. I'm not saying what the orca does is right, but it's definitely instinct and almost "human nature". Without the strength of this characterization, ORCA would sink before it could swim.
- The direction. While no Steven Spielberg, LOGAN'S RUN director Michael Anderson does a pretty good job visualizing the screenplay. While some shots look too grainy [as if the shots were zoomed in for some reason, creating a snowy effect] and some scenes are slow as heck [mainly any scene not involving the orca], Anderson still manages to direct a decent film that doesn't feel too much like a low-grade JAWS [which the film actually is].
Good moments include the action sequences, where Nolan hunts the killer whales, and anytime the orca attacks back throughout the film. I love it when the orca kills off crew members one by one just by leaping up in the air to either grab them, or knock the ship in a way that the characters fall into the orca's path. Bo Derek's scene where the orca rips her bandaged leg off is pretty funny. And the final act with Nolan vs. Orca one-on-one on icebergs is pretty neat. It's really silly stuff, but I was pretty entertained.
The best moment of the film is probably the whale burial at sea. It's truly a moving scene, as it's shot really well and accompanied by Ennio Morricone's romantic score. I honestly felt bad for this orca and it showed how human these creatures are in terms of how they treat their own. I have a feeling Tim Burton was somewhat inspired by this scene when it came to the Penguin's funeral in BATMAN RETURNS. I thought this was a great scene in which no dialogue was needed. The visual told you the entire story and you definitely wanted the orca to have his revenge after this. Anderson did a good job where it mattered.
- Ennio Morricone's theme. While not as good as John Williams' score for JAWS, Morricone manages to create a sweet, romantic score for ORCA. While the song "My Love, We Are One" is pretty freakin' cheesy during the end credits, it does sum up what the film was about and reflects the feelings of the orca. Not his best work as a composer, but I do feel the score enhanced the film.
- The human characters. While the orca is developed pretty well for a killer whale, the human characters are cold fish. None of them are remotely interesting, or sympathetic enough to feel compassion for. Captain Nolan gets the most development of the humans, but even he isn't all that likeable. He feels a connection to the orca, since he too lost his family. However, he feels the orca is better than him because the orca is actually going after the culprit, while he didn't do anything after his family's death. And while we're supposed to see that Nolan and the orca are really one and the same, it's hard to sympathize with a man who won't confront his darkest fears, being an asshole to others as a defense mechanism. Plus, we barely know anything about him that makes him watchable for more than five minutes without a more interesting killer whale invading the scene.
Worse are the other human characters. Professor Rachel Bedford, while intelligent and beautiful, is just bland and cold as a character. Her narration, which just repeats what we've already seen and/or know, is pretty annoying. She's supposed to be a love interest for Nolan and they have no chemistry whatsoever. She's pretty vapid for the most part. The other crew members don't really make much of a mark either, except for Umilak, who is the philosopher of the group. But he's not in the film much to really make any sort of impact. It's pretty sad that the animal is more interesting than his human counterparts.
- The acting. Speaking of bland, at least the acting is consistent. Richard Harris is the best of the lot as Captain Nolan. He's not really great in the film, but at least he seems to care at times. He shows emotion during the scenes that really needs it, so he's not that bad. Unfortunately, Charlotte Rampling is very boring as Rachel Bedford. She's nice to look at, but she really doesn't make her character all that interesting to watch. Same goes to Will Samson [of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST fame], who gives a monotone performance as the philosophical Native American. Bo Derek also makes her film debut here, but doesn't get to do much but get injured and then get her leg chewed off by an orca. Nothing all that impressive by the acting here, although Harris tries to make it work.
THE FINAL HOWL
While a JAWS imitator, ORCA is one of the better ones. While silly and ridiculous at times, ORCA also manages to be moving at times and entertaining in terms of the human-vs.-animal aspect. Ennio Morricone's scoring is beautiful. Michael Anderson's direction is inspiring at times. And the characterization of a sympathetic killer whale interestingly works for the film. While the acting and the human characters are left to be desired, there is still a lot to like about this different take of the "animals run amok" movie.