Orca (1977)

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*. What a bizarre movie. It seems to have begun life as a straightforward Jaws rip-off, with Dino De Laurentiis telling producer Luciano Vincenzoni to “find a fish [sic] tougher and more terrible than the great white.” De Laurentiis had just produced King Kong the previous year and was clearly only interested in going big or going home.
*. From these immodest beginning things take a strange and totally unexpected turn, as the killer whale became something far more than Spielberg’s great white killing machine. You see, this monster of the deep is both superintelligent and possessed by a very human spirit of vengeance.
*. The “science” behind this nonsense is set out for us in Professor Rachel Bedford’s ludicrous lecture on killer whales. There’s a long history of these utterly bogus scientific lectures in movies, but this one really takes the cake. Dr. Bedford throws out dubious assertions (like the killer whale’s monogamy), some giant stretches (a killer whale’s fetus is like that of a human, as is its brain), and at least one true puzzler. This occurs when Dr. Bedford tells us that whale song contains fifteen million pieces of information, whereas the Bible only contains four million. What does this mean?
*. Sticking with Bedford, how many movies has Charlotte Rampling ever appeared comfortable in? She always seems out of sorts at being on screen, especially given such bad material.

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*. Richard Harris, on the other hand, revels in such parts. As David Thomson observes, “he is most at home in terrible films.” It’s where his particular brand of hamminess belongs.
*. I believe this was Bo Derek’s first movie. A few years later she would re-team with Harris in her greatest role as Jane in Tarzan, the Ape Man.
*. But back to the nonsense. How much of it are we to take seriously? William Sampson’s Umilak gives the stereotypical wisdom-of-his-ancestors speech, but then admits that these are old stories and no longer apply. Rampling confesses near the end that while she does believe killer whales are intelligent, she was just making the stuff up about one of them carrying out a vendetta. And yet that is clearly what we are led to believe is going on.
*. There were logistical problems. Jaws had logistical problems as well. Comes with the territory. It’s clear right away that many of the shots of the killer whale were taken of a whale swimming in a tank. It’s also the case that a lot of the whale’s most spectacular kills are cut so that you don’t actually see anything.
*. That said, for a film of this time the final effect isn’t all bad, and the last part, set amidst the polar ice, looks pretty good, even beautiful at times.

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*. What turns it from a silly rip-off into something more (something even sillier, as well as something better) is its crazily operatic sensibility. Harris’s Captain Nolan is less Quint than Ahab, his struggle with the shark taking on epic overtones, right down to the theme song “My Love, We Are One.”
*. The man vs. whale duel reaches its bizarre peak as Nolan rejects using his rifle in the final battle, saying he wants a “fair fight, on equal terms.” You have to wonder what form a fair fight, on equal terms, between a man and a killer whale would take. We never find out because Harris does decide to keep the gun.
*. Do you think a killer whale could really push an iceberg that size against the current, and shove it with enough force into the side of the ship to sink it? I’m being silly just asking, aren’t I?
*. Ennio Morricone’s score gets a lot of praise, but I’m not sure it really goes that well with the kind of movie this is. The slack direction by Michael Anderson (fresh off of the similarly uninspired Logan’s Run) doesn’t help much either. This film is usually described as a horror film, but there isn’t a single scary or even suspenseful sequence in it. Which makes it all pretty dull. Some of the photography is very nice, but aside from that this is neither good nor bad enough to be worth a recommendation.

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