They killed his wife…they killed his child…they took everything away from him and replaced it with a thirst for justice…a thirst for revenge…sounds like a set up for the 1974 Charles Bronson film Death Wish…but it’s not…it’s actually for Orca (1977) aka Orca: The Killer Whale. Now one can say Orca is a completely original film and has nothing to do with the De Laurentiis group (Dino was the executive producer) trying to capitalize on the phenomenal success of the Spielberg film Jaws (1975), the first film to break the 100 million dollar mark, but they would be wrong. Spielberg’s popular and wildly successful giant shark film spawned legions of copycats, all eager to suckle on the cash teat, including films that featured wanton whales (this one), ornery octopuses (okay, it’s octopi), savage squids, beastly bigfoots, antagonistic arachnids, barbarous bears and just about any other kind of creature that walks, crawls, swims, or slimes its’ way across God’s green Earth that you can imagine.
Orca, directed by Michael Anderson, who had just come off directing the sci-fi classic Logan’s Run (1976) features Richard (A Man Called Horse) Harris, and perennial 70’s film star Charlotte Rampling. Also appearing are Will Sampson (the big Indian from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), popular character actor Keenan Wynn, Robert Carradine, and in her first on screen appearance, Bo Derek. As the film opens, we see many good-looking underwater shots of killer whales swimming around, and we see two people, presumably scientists, Rachel (Rampling) and Ken (Carradine), doing some sort of scientific research involving the whales. We also meet Captain Nolan (Harris), and his crew, as they’re trying to capture a great white shark in order to sell it to an aquarium for great profit. In an effort to show just how much tougher and impressive killer whales are than great white sharks (and a hollow attempt at one-upmanship with the Jaws film), we witness, along with Captain Nolan, a spectacular attack on a great white by a killer whale. This encourages Nolan to change his goal to giving up on sharks and focus on capturing a killer whale, a decision he will end up regretting. His attempt turns out badly, as the whale he captures, not only a female, but also a pregnant female, dies in a very bloody fashion. Now, we soon learn that the whales, being highly intelligent mammals, not only mate for life, but that they also have a capacity for revenge that meets, maybe even exceeds, that of humans. As Nolan begins to realize the consequences of his actions, regret and remorse creep into his consciousness, and tries to come to terms with what he’s done. Thus begins a slow and deliberate attempt by the whale to draw Nolan out to sea, so that it may give the once haughty captain his comeuppance.
I did like certain things about this film. I thought the underwater shots of the whales were done well, and exhibited a calm gracefulness that certainly goes against the whale’s size and weight. The story was pretty interesting, and, even though it’s riding the coat tails of a much more popular and famous film, as a great number did, it stood out against most of those as being a better overall movie. Also, I did like Ennio Morricone’s very ethereal musical score throughout the film, as it especially accompanied the underwater scenes well. What I didn’t care for in the film was the entire `eco’ conscious theme ingrained into the story, a popular cause de jour that was prevalent throughout the late 70’s. I’ve never advocated the mass slaughter of any species, but to constantly have the notion that all men are evil and destructive thrown continually in my face didn’t endear the film to me all that much (maybe I exaggerate, but it did feel that way at times). The message came across rather heavy-handed and patronizing at times, as I felt like a little kid being lectured by his parents. I love it when Hollywood tries to teach as well as entertain (remember kids, just because it’s on the screen does not mean it has to be true). The character development in this story seemed weak, especially the element where Nolan `identifies’ with the whale (beware, as a severe case of eye-rolling will ensue). I did feel Nolan floundering back and forth, wrestling with the little voice in his head to be very human. Rampling’s character lacked any development whatsoever, and was only presented as a means to an end, to provide scientific information to Nolan. There was a glimmer of her character being a romantic interest to Nolan, but that was never pursued. Sampson’s character of Umilak, a Native American of the area, appears only to provide Nolan with the spiritual and mystical aspects of the whale, and nothing else. The other characters? Well, you can call them whale fodder, as that was all they were good for…there are a couple of scenes in the film, as others have mentioned, that may not be suitable for young viewers. I got the feeling two forces were at work in this film, one trying to get across the gentle and warm aspects of the whales, and another intent on trying to include spectacular elements along the lines of those within the Jaws film. These two ideas seemed to work against each other, creating an odd dichotomy.
The transfer to DVD provided here in wide screen format looks very good, despite minor wear, due to age, to the source material. There are no special features available, not even a trailer, but that was hardly surprising to me, as Paramount Home Video, when it comes to DVD releases, lacks not only in their output, but also in understanding the value of the inclusion of extras. All in all, a lack-luster release of a better than average film that owes its’ existence to another, much more popular, much more successful, and a much better all around film.