Perhaps the best known of the many Jaws (1975) rip-offs, Orca was directed by Michael Anderson and produced by Dino De Laurentiis who, in the 1970s, was busying himself with a project to make some of the worst big-budget blockbusters of the decade. Orca opts for the unusual but not well developed idea of being an anti-Moby Dick, a sea-faring tale of terror in which it’s the whale – an almost supernaturally gifted Orca, so actually it’s a dolphin but killer dolphins tend not to sell cinema tickets – that becomes obsessed and doggedly pursues its human prey with an implausible single-mindedness.
Irish Canadian fisherman Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) has taken to capturing large fish and aquatic mammals for use in amusement parks in order to pay of the debt on his fishing boat the Bumpo. While tracking a Great White shark for a local aquarium he and his crew (Keenan Wynn, Keith Carradine and… Bo Derek?!) turn their attentions to a passing killer whale, accidentally killing the Orca’s pregnant mate who miscarries her dying foetus on the deck of the boat. The enraged whale starts to track the crew of the Bumpo who are now being advised by a cetacean expert, Dr Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), Nolan and crew are helpless as the whale trashes boats in the harbour, sets fire to the dock and starts killing them off one by one. Eventually the creature lures the surviving crew to the Arctic where it faces off with Nolan one last time in the icy waters.
As written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati (with some uncredited input from Robert Towne), Orca is very clearly B-movie material but no-one seems to have told Anderson who gives the proceedings a quite unnecessary A-movie sheen. Orca unquestionably looks great – credit director of photography Ted Moore, a Bond veteran for much of that – which makes it all the more regrettable that the plot is such utter nonsense.
Harris attacks his role with gusto, leaving barely a square inch of scenery unchewed, Keenan Wynn gets killed off alarmingly early, Robert Carradine plays Richard Dreyfuss and this being a late 70s American horror film with a vaguely ecological bent, there’s a Native American sub-plot crowbarred in with Will Sampson turning up to impart wisdom and gently chastise Nolan for his actions. When not visibly wondering what the hell she paid her agent for, Charlotte Rampling gets to deliver a lecture in which the writers get to show off what little they learned about killer whales and then make up a lot more nonsense to pad things out (there’s no credibly scientific evidence that Orcas kill for revenge, a notion that seems to have come entirely from this film). As well as coming out with some extraordinary guff about Orca “language” that immediately makes you question Bedford’s credentials, Rampling is called upon to paper over narrative cracks with a notably pretentious voice over.
And then there’s Bo Derek, making her big screen debut two years before her breakthrough role in “10”, as the least convincing crew member of a fishing boat you’ll ever see. Try as she might – and one suspects that she wasn’t trying that hard – she simply can’t make her supposedly knowledgeable pronouncements about whales sound at all convincing, though at least her big scene, getting plaster-cast leg bitten off by the vengeful whale, is one of the film’s comic highlight.
Other guffaws will be elicited by the whale roaring with anguish at the loss of its mate and unborn child (a shot that completely undoes the trauma of the actual killing, a surprisingly explicit and nasty moment) and the Styrofoam ice blocks that threaten to submerge Nolan’s boat in the climax.
That final confrontation, amid the frozen waters of the Arctic wherein the whale uses icebergs as battering rams, hints very slightly at the climax to Frankenstein, Nolan’s greed and thoughtlessness having created a monster as bent on destroying him as the monster was on killing Frankenstein. The sequence, meant to be the big dramatic climax, is rather undone by some very ropey matte effects, the aforementioned ice fall and some very obvious model work.
We get an early cameo appearance from a Great White shark in the opening minutes, courtesy of underwater photography legends Ron and Valerie Taylor who also worked on Jaws. Allusions to the Spielberg film are everywhere from Harris’ stereotypically crusty seadog, the whale tipping up an ice floe so that Nolan slides towards its gaping maw as the shark had done with Quint’s boat in Jaws and of course Quint’s fishing boat had been called Orca.
Harris hated the comparisons to Jaws (he had a vested interest in the film’s success, having been almost killed or severely injured while doing his own stunts – after that he needed the film to be popular to justify his recklessness) but when Anderson and his writers went out of their way to draw attention to the similarities he was bound to be disappointed. The film did well enough hat the box office (and to be fair to it, Orca is a lot more fun than the Jaws sequels) but was pasted by the critics. Comparisons may be odious but they are sometimes inevitable – Jaws is a masterpiece, a film that keeps rewarding repeated viewings all these years later. Orca… well it has its fans but it’ll never be anyone’s go-to film when in the mood for a film about rampaging aquatic monsters. Ennio Morricone’s score is nice though.