ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE
No, seriously: what about the words "Dino De Laurentiis" and "Jaws with an orca" does not compel you to see it for yourself?
Directed by Michael Anderson
Written by Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati, and Robert Towne (based on the novel Orca by Arthur Herzog)
With Richard Harris (Nolan), Charlotte Rampling (Dr. Rachel Bedford), Will Sampson (Jacob Umilak), Keenan Wynn (Novak), Bo Derek (Annie), Peter Hooten (Paul), Robert Carradine (Ken), and Yaka and Nepo (the Orca)
Spoiler alert: high
There is, I suppose, no objectively wrong answer to the eternal question we wrestled with yesterday—namely, "Which is actually the best of all the innumerable rip-offs of Steven Spielberg's unprecedented 1975 superhit, Jaws?" Many will begin and end that discussion with Joe Dante's Piranha—for example, Spielberg himself—even when this answer is pretty close to objectively wrong. Presently, in the far-flung year of 2016, we have The Shallows to contend with, too—but The Shallows, being in its heart more of a rip-off of Gravity, needn't concern us tpo deeply here. Indeed, so long as we confine ourselves to that first wave of Jawsploitation, I don't even need to think about my answer: if I were to scour the dollar DVD bins of a thousand video stores, I would not expect that I should ever find a movie of its ilk any better than Orca: The Killer Whale.
The only exception, of course, would be Jaws itself. And even then, Orca stands apart—because it actually does give the original super-classic something of a run for its money.
Not that Orca arose from any nobler impulses than the rest. Like Grizzly and Tentacle before it, and like Piranha afterward, Orca began when a B-movie producer saw Jaws' stupendous profits, and commanded a subordinate to deliver a picture that might capture a piece of that deadly-animal zeitgeist for himself. Perhaps the key difference with Orca was that its producer was one Dino De Laurentiis—so great a B-movie producer, that when that phrase is attached to him, it's a lot more like badge of honor than a smear.
And so, when Dino rousted Luciano Vincenzoni from his bed one night, demanding that Vincenzo get to work, yesterday, on their own maritime monster movie, he further specified that Vincenzo find him a fish "tougher and more terrible" than Jaws' great white. Vincenzoni didn't know his ass from a squalus, but he had a cousin who did, and he picked the mighty killer whale—granting Dino's movie both its beast and its title in one fell swoop. Sometime afterward, Vincenzoni dutifully secured the rights to Arthur Herzog's novel Orca, since he felt that maybe his movie needed to have a story in addition to a monster and a name.
Regardless, it was one excellent choice, and everything that sets Orca so distinctly apart from its forebear comes directly from Vincenzoni's fateful decision to go with a marine creature who was as intelligent as it was powerful. Not that DDL didn't find the orca's raw strength interesting enough in itself. The fact that orcas kill sharks for food and fun certainly wasn't lost on this egotistical Italian. And thus does Dino's movie begin—in the crassest, even the most eye-rolling way it possibly could—by having an orca headbutt a great white, or at least stock footage of a great white, sending the insensate fish flopping right into its grave. Even in the context of a career like this one, it's not a subtle gesture. No, it is Dino screaming at you, from all the way across the Atlantic: "My movie is better!" It's the exact kind of deranged, senseless bravado you love to find in any B-movie—for even if Orca is obviously never going to live up to its self-defeating opening gambit, you've still got to appreciate the guts it took to make it.
And that gets us to the meat of Orca's story, for De Laurentiis' execution of Spielberg's shark is also the occasion for the first meeting between the captain of the Bumpo, Nolan, and the whale-hugging marine biologist, Rachel Bedford; the latter was listening to orca songs while the former was out hunting sharks to sell to aquariums. In the chaos, Rachel winds up aboard the Bumpo—and Nolan quickly blames her interloping for depriving him of his great white prize. Yet their confrontation sparks an inspiration within Nolan—for this great fisherman has apparently barely even heard of orcas before now, a selective ignorance so bizarre it has to be remarked upon within the film itself. But, soon enough, he's plotting to capture an orca of his own.
Rachel tries to dissuade him, and while he is gross and aggressive in what seems like an active attempt to drive her away, everything she prophesies comes to pass when he actually goes out on the water to get his whale. His lack of experience—indeed, his dire incompetence—leads immediately to debacle. Nolan maims the male orca he intended to catch (leaving a notch in his fin, mainly so that neither Nolan nor we shall ever be confused as to the identity of our monster), and in the same instant he harpoons the male's mate by accident instead. Supposing that one whale is as good as another, he hauls her in anyway, half-killing her in the process and subjecting the tortured cetacean to such intense stress that her body rejects the fetus she's carrying, right out of her vagina and onto the deck of the Bumpo. This is presumably the point that Nolan begins to really feel the moral terror of his situation.
Disgusted, he flushes the dead baby orca off his boat with a firehose. As day becomes night and the male continues to pursue his boat, Nolan finally cuts the female loose, too. The male lets Nolan go, as he tries desperately to resuscitate his mate. But when these futile efforts fail, as they must, he pushes her corpse ashore, right next to Nolan's boat—as if he were leaving the captain a message.
He was. Soon, Orca shall make not one but two Big Asks of its audience. And, adore the movie as much as I might, it's not at all surprising that not everybody has been able to go along with Orca's demands.
For they truly are beyond the infinite.
The first and (surprisingly) the less severe of the two is that Orca requires a stunning amount of suspension of disbelief. For while it may be as classical a roaring rampage of revenge as you'll ever see in your life, it has one really big, really obvious point of distinction: namely, it stars a giant dolphin. Clearly, anthropomorphism is nothing new under the sun. And anthropomorphizing a killer whale—within reason, anyway—actually sounds like a wonderfully appropriate idea. However, the words "reasonable" and "appropriate" do not belong in the same sentence, or maybe even the same paragraph, as the words "Orca: The Killer Whale." Or, for that matter, the words "Dino De Laurentiis."
I want to be completely straightforward about it: pretty much nothing in this film is even remotely accurate. (I mean, just for starters, Orca would be a bit more realistic if our antagonist's lost loved one were a mother rather than a spouse, which is a concept that orcas don't appear to even have.) And whether these sins of ignorance fall upon the screenwriters, the source material, or the state of cetacean research in 1977, I cannot say with certainty. But it is entirely possible to say that the screenwriters plainly don't care, and—depending on your tastes—they are either very admirably or very foolishly willing to punch up all the biological facts they thought were true, but aren't, with an even greater number of much more lurid facts, that they clearly had to have known they were just making up.
But, truthfully, that's par for this genre's course. It's when Orca gets around to pitting the whale's intellect against humanity that things really get interestingly silly, for as the film goes on, the orca's deep comprehension of human society reaches outright magical levels—notably, when it chases off the fish from the bay, and starts sinking every boat in the harbor except Nolan's, thereby requiring the orca to know, firstly, that human beings possess a concept of ownership; secondly, that the humans here in Newfoundland subsist off the economic activity generated by commercial fishing; and thirdly (and most impressively!) that human beings are more likely react by blaming one of their own, rather than the killer whale who's actually hurting them. In other words, our orca conceives—and successfully executes!—a plan to destroy Nolan's reputation. But there's even more to it than that: because that's just phase one of this orca's master plan, which is to destroy Nolan psychologically, pushing and pushing until Nolan has no choice left but to meet his nemesis out on the high seas.
Therefore it really does have to be conceded: Orca is so insanely preposterous that you either have to love it, or you have to despise it, and you'll have chosen which one suits you best a long, long time before you ever get to the part where this killer whale—with the foresight of a cetacean Rube Goldberg—manages to make an oil refinery explode.
Orca, the only movie ever made where an aquatic monster commits first-degree arson.
As I said, though, this is still surely the smaller of Orca's requests of its audience; the other is a lot more prosaic, but more damaging, and that's the way that the screenplay dumps everything in its actors' laps, hoping they can still make something out of the mess. It's never clearer than with its leads, and it is impossible to say why, exactly, Rachel would want to have anything to do with Nolan if the plot didn't require her to, for he is an alcoholic, a lecher, and (frankly) kind of an idiot. It's still not exactly believable, even when Charlotte Rampling is given an actual voiceover and relates Rachel's feelings to us directly. (In fact, the best that can be said about Rachel's extremely intermittent narration is that it suggests—without anyone just blurting it out—that this is a story that Nolan himself won't be around to tell once it's over.)
The fortunate thing, then, is that the actor who takes the brunt of that plot spill was Richard Harris, whose extraordinary performance saves the whole film, almost singlehandedly. Certainly, no one else on the screen has motive or opportunity to do so: Will Sampson is trapped within his usual proficiency as a Wise Native American stereotype; Bo Derek is so thoroughly backgrounded I wonder why she's here; and Rampling? Well,. Rampling appears to have gotten through Orca on the basis of pure spite.
But Harris—Harris is fucking great. I mean, fine, maybe he is drunk; but surely that's correct. Harris fills in all of the yawning gaps the screenwriters left behind; and it is, in terms of its challenge and its craft, at least the equal of any individual's acting in Jaws.
On the page, Nolan is just a dick, undergoing a perfunctory moral awakening; on the screen, Harris fills Nolan's eyes with a battle between good and evil, and Nolan's broadest smile can't hide the desperate struggle that Harris is playing out behind it. Harris turns the script's perpetual inconsistency and indecision into something terrifically human. Frankly, it's such a complete interpretation of the character that Harris half-deserves a co-writing credit. It's a strategic performance, too. Consider that when the revelations of Nolan's own dead wife and child come, Harris can just let the line sit there awkwardly—because he knows that half an hour later he'll fully admit what the orca's vendetta means to him, in the most heartbreaking line that I know of in any Jaws knock-off: "He loved his family more than I loved mine."
"Heartbreaking" certainly isn't the typical adjective you'd throw around to describe a Jaws cash-in. But maybe it's instructive that the first time Dino sought to ride Spielberg's coattails, he actually did it with his ill-starred '76 remake of King Kong, and the missing half of the DDL quote that forms the title of this review is "When Kong dies, everybody cry." That's the brand of tragedy that Orca delivers, to the extent that even calling it a "Jaws rip-off" has always been a slight misapprehension. Its premise, batshit as it is, is a unique and tantalizing one, asking the human audience to reach beyond itself and see the world through vastly different eyes.
Maybe sometimes too literally, but hey.
Its hero, beyond any doubt, is the orca himself; Nolan, our protagonist, is the piece's villain, only a more complex one than you'd usually expect to find in a B-movie sold on the basis of Bo Derek getting her leg bitten off and a killer whale having a miscarriage. But this is how the schlock exploitation of the film's family annihilation sequence turns out to be a brilliant move after all: it sends the whole movie careening into delightful madness in just a handful of completely indelible moments (one of which is delivered, of course, in utterly prurient slow-motion), and it certainly never comes back from madness. It can't hurt, either, that Dino also managed to snag Italy's single most legendary film composer for Orca. And so Ennio Morricone's mordant score—replete with his customary grieving female vocals—is indeed one characteristically excellent piece of work.
But there is one last man who could yet claim the title of the film's most valuable creator; and, if I surprise you when I say it's director Michael Anderson, then it's really your fault. Anderson has never been my favorite—partly because nobody who made Around the World in 80 Days is ever going to be anybody's favorite. But, twenty years later, he directed perhaps the most professional film to arise out of the whole Jawsploitation movement. There's only a bit in the way of overt style at work in Orca—and what style there is confines itself principally to some fascinating solid color lighting, along with (if I'm really geeking out here) a montage that opens up the final voyage of the Bumpo, which is, in its own small (and lonely) way, an outright masterpiece of film editing.
But what Anderson brings instead is arguably even more important than style: a genuine gravity to these incredibly goofy proceedings. He takes his scenario so seriously that it's only ever of minor concern that the film is so emphatically dumb, or that a lot of the non-Harris acting is subpar, or even that the special effects aren't very good, as if someone looked at Jaws and decided the spectacle part didn't matter. (Mostly, Orca relies upon stock footage from several depressingly-obvious captive orcas, combined with shots of less-depressing but equally-obvious orca puppets—whose straight fins and pearly white teeth, incidentally, don't remotely match the appearance of the sad, enslaved real ones. Finally, and infamously, there is that one absolute disaster of a shot, of a captive blackfish breaching. It slightly ruins the movie every single time Anderson crudely composites it into his frame; so, naturally, he uses it at least seven times. But, even for all of that, the battle at the top of the world does remain such an excellently Italianate example of design.)
So Orca has that to rest its laurels upon.
So: if these things don't matter, and they kind of don't, you really do have to say that Anderson's direction is a minor miracle—because anyone who could take this movie seriously, let alone make any viewer take it seriously, has done something amazing.
The caveat: I am more forgiving than most; perhaps more forgiving than I ought to be. After all, virtually every moment in Orca is, in its way, an open invitation for you to stop caring about it. It is a film that all but dares you not to believe in what it's telling you. But, if you can manage that feat, if you can meet it on its chosen level of hallucinatory implausibility, then it's a extraordinarily rewarding experience. It's a study of a man ripped to shreds by his conscience, matched against an elemental tale of all-consuming hatred. It closes with the most perfect tragedy to befall an animal in, perhaps, any film I've ever seen. It is no great surprise, of course, than Nolan can find his redemption solely in death. But what winds up left buried in implication is the fate of our other killer of the sea.
The final shots of the film are the orca heading further and further north, trapping himself below the ice. And it's not even really that oblique: the inescapable conclusion is that the orca chose this arena for his final confrontation with Nolan because, here, he too would die. And so, when the threadbare theme of every revenge thriller ever made winds up embodied in a form so terrifically unexpected that you can't help but let it slip right through your defenses, "heartbreaking" really is the only word. So, Dino, if you can hear me up there in Mogul Heaven—I hope you know that for at least one person out there, you were right about the big difference between Jaws and King Kong. The only thing you were ever wrong about was that it took your other Jaws knock-off to actually get the job done.
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