Directed By: Michael Anderson
Starring: Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson
Tag line: "Terror just beneath the surface"
Trivia: Richard Harris performed his own stunts for the movie
The opening ten minutes or so of 1977’s Orca are exceptional, and get the movie off to a great start. Following the credits, we meet the title creatures (two of them, to be exact), who seem to be enjoying each other’s company as they swim along. While this is happening, researcher Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), in full scuba gear, is underwater collecting samples. Suddenly, a great white shark appears, causing her to hide.
Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and the crew of his fishing boat: Novak (Keenan Wynn), Annie (Bo Derek) and Paul (Peter Hooten); spot the shark’s dorsal fin jutting out of the water, and rush forward to capture it (an aquarium will pay them top dollar for a live shark). Dr. Bedford’s assistant Ken (Robert Carradine), who was waiting in a raft for her to return, warns Captain Nolan (armed with a spear gun) that there’s a diver down below.
As a result, Nolan’s first shot misses, and he screams at Dr. Bedford (now on the raft with Ken) for costing him money. The excitement continues when Ken accidentally falls into the water, causing the shark to swim towards him. Just then, an Orca (aka a Killer Whale) darts in and devours the great white, saving Ken and proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are the most dangerous creature in the sea.
This opening has it all: an introduction to the main characters (human and otherwise), beautiful underwater photography, plenty of action, and some high drama. We’re even given a taste of Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score.
It’s too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to these first 10 minutes. In fact, the remaining 82 minutes of Orca suck.
Impressed by what he saw, Nolan decides to switch things up and capture a killer whale instead. Dr. Bedford warns him that Orcas are unique: they have only one mate for life, and, unlike other aquatic creatures, are protective of their young. Still, Nolan presses on, and during his first encounter with a school of killer whales he inadvertently spears a female (he just missed the male, nicking its fin). What’s more, when he wrestles the enormous whale onto his boat he discovers it’s pregnant! Neither mother nor child survives, and a repentant Nolan drops the carcasses into the sea before sheepishly making his way back to dry land.
Yet the ordeal is far from over. By murdering both its mate and child, Nolan has incited the wrath of a particularly ruthless Killer Whale, which will not rest until it has had its revenge. Nolan initially scoffs at the notion that a whale is now hunting him, and ignores the pleas of both Dr. Bradford and Umilak (Will Sampson), a local Native, to take the threat seriously. But before long, Nolan realizes this whale means business, and decides to meet it, mono-et-mono, on the open sea…
Though listed as a horror film, Orca is more likely to make you chuckle, especially when the whale puts its “plan” into motion. For starters, it drives away all the fish, causing the other fisherman to turn on Nolan and his crew (this Orca has obviously studied human behavior, and knows that hitting a fella in the wallet is the best way to piss him off); and at one point the whale stares down Nolan as he’s standing on a pier. As if all that wasn’t ridiculous enough, this very clever (and amazingly agile) whale even manages to cause a pretty big explosion on dry land (I won’t bother explaining how it does this. I doubt you’d believe me if I did). Yet as bad as these scenes are, they pale in comparison to the final showdown, which is also too absurd for words.
Not even the film’s usually-reliable cast can save it. Richard Harris’ Nolan, with his over-the-top Irish brogue and refusal to accept facts that are as plain as the nose on his face, is annoying as hell; and I have no idea why Will Sampson’s character is even in this movie (in most scenes, his Umilak shows up out of the blue, pontificates a little, then immediately disappears. It isn’t until the end that he gets directly involved, and when the chips are down he’s so incredibly ineffective that it actually made me laugh out loud).
It’s quite possible that, as Dr. Bedford says, killer whales are “without challenge the most powerful animals on the globe”, but based on what I saw in Orca, I’d take a great white shark over them every day of the week!