Cool Cinema trash: Orca (1977)
The killer whale is one of the most intelligent creatures in the universe. Incredibly, he is the only animal other than man who kills for revenge.
He has one mate, and if she is harmed by man, he will hunt down that person with a relentless, terrible vengeance – across seas, across time, across al obstacles.
Mainly considered a B-movie sub-genre, cinematic monsters from the deep blue sea proved to be very popular with drive-in audiences of the 1950’s. This type of story received first-class treatment in 1975 with Jaws. People flocked to the theatres and soon Hollywood producers were scrambling to make their own tales of waterlogged terror. Dino De Laurentiis was no exception.
But De Laurentiis would out-do them all. Not only would his creature be smarter, faster and more deadly, he’d push the dramatic conflict of man vs. beast to operatic heights. The final result is Orca (1977), an over-the-top pop psychology update of Moby Dick.
What it’s all about: “My Love, We Are One”, the haunting instrumental by Ennio Morricone, accompanies the opening scene of two killer whales frolicking, splashing and procreating in the waters off the coast of Newfoundland. In actuality they’re only in a holding tank at Marine World, but more on that later.
Marine biologist Charlotte Rampling and her assistant Robert Carradine are doing some underwater research when they are threatened by a Great White Shark. Luckily the shark is distracted by the sound of an approaching boat. At the helm is fisherman and shark hunter Captain Nolan, played by Richard Harris with an Irish baroque accent.
Carradine, like the disposable character he is, rather stupidly falls out of his rubber dinghy. Just as he is about to become shark food, Carradine is saved by a killer whale that charges in like the cavalry. The impact of being struck by the giant whale sends the shark flying several feet into the air, landing in the water a bloody, whimpering mess.
Our glacial biologist calmly asses the situation, “There’s only one creature in the world that can do that…a killer whale.”
Later, back on dry land, Rampling is giving a lecture that is jam packed with info, the gist of which is that we’re comparatively stupid to whales. Her lecture serves three purposes. The first is to show how smart she is. The second is to give the audience background information on the movies main antagonist. And the third is to set up the movies premise. Rampling unsubtly foreshadows the main plot point when she unleashes this hum-dinger of a whale fact, “…like human beings, they have a profound instinct for vengeance.”
In voice over Rampling tells us that Harris has been coming to her lectures and that she has formed a crush on the salty old Sea Dog. That afternoon she finds the captain rigging a holding pen in the bay. His focus has shifted from shark hunting to whale hunting.
Even when she’s furious, Rampling never looks more than slightly annoyed. “Nolan, there’s a word for you.” She frostily deadpans.
“I know, and I’ve been called it many times.”
Their love/hate verbal sparring is full of flirty double entendre such as when she warns Nolan not to fool with Mother Nature. “It’s hardly something to screw around with.”
“That’s a very dangerous word to use around a fellow like me…I might get a notion or two.”
Captain Nolan and his crew (Bo Derek, Keenan Wynn, and Peter Hooten) head out to sea and find a pod of frolicking whales. In an attempt to capture one of the creatures, Nolan misfires his harpoon gun and mortally wounds one of the whales.
Bo, apparently an amateur whaleologist, informs Nolan, “You nicked the male, you hit the female.”
The whale becomes tangled in the line and swims underneath the boat where she gouges herself against the boat propeller. The real reason that Bo is part of the crew becomes readily apparent. She has ESWP (Extra Sensory Whale Perception). “She’s trying to kill herself!” Bo shouts.
First, since the whale is underwater and underneath the boat, how does Bo know that the female Orca is purposefully trying to do herself harm? Second, how can she vouch for the whale’s mental state?
Inexplicably, they bring the injured whale onboard while her mate observes from the water. Bleeding, traumatized, and hoisted high above the boat’s deck, the pregnant female has a miscarriage. The fetus plops down onto the deck while the father lets out an anguished roar. Nolan quickly washes baby Shamu overboard.
As the crew heads back to port, Orca repeatedly rams the boat. Guessing he wants his mate back, Keenan Wynn climbs out on the yard arm and cuts the female loose. Orca leaps out of the water and plucks Wynn off the boat.
With his wife returned, Orca and friends swim toward land in a water bound funeral procession. Orca then beaches her corpse to remind Nolan of the pain he has caused, and that for his crime, he will pay.
The next morning Nolan is surprised to see that the whale made it to shore. “She didn’t swim,” Rampling tells him, “her mate pushed her. He followed you.”
Enter Will Sampson as Umilak, the wise native. “She speaks you the truth. She knows it from the University, I know it from my ancestors.” He continues with more hokey mumbo-jumbo and restates Rampling’s asscertation that the whale will hunt Nolan down.
A fin, with a recognizable nick in it, breaks the surface of the water with a familiar shark-like menace. Duh-dum, duh-dum. Orca smashes through the hull of every boat in the harbor, except Nolan’s.
That night a representative of the local fishermen tells Nolan that he’d better take care of his whale. “An hour ago a kid saw a fin off the North point. A fin with a nick in it. Stationary. Just waiting.”
Sure enough when Nolan goes to the jetty Orca is waiting for him. People must constantly explain everything to Nolan, proving that whales are indeed smarter than man, or at least this man.
Rampling enlightens Nolan, “Why do you think he sunk the other boats in the harbor and not yours? He deliberately left you your boat because he wants to fight you on the sea.” But fighting is the last thing Nolan wants because he understands what the whale is going through. Nolan lost his wife and unborn child in a car accident. They are brothers in misery. All Nolan wants to do is look Orca in the eye and tell him that he’s sorry, that it was all a terrible mistake.
But Orca doesn’t want to talk, he wants vengeance. To prove he means business, Orca sets the dock and hillside ablaze with the help of a conveniently located gas line and a precariously perched lantern.
“The monster’s message to us is clear,” Will Sampson chimes in again, “we must send him Nolan or he will torment this village without mercy.” Oh, boy. Orca please kill him, kill him now!
If torching the village and forcing us to endure Will Sampson weren’t bad enough, the whale with the attitude next attacks Bo Derek. While nursing a broken leg at Nolan’s Cliffside home, Bo senses something. Her ESWP kicks in.
Orca’s ultra sonic sound vibrations shatter her wine glass. Before she can escape, he strikes the house supports and the cottage begins to slide into the bay. The back of the house crumbles away as the whale smashes through the floorboards. Nolan tries to save Bo but Orca rises out of the water and bites through her cast with a loud crunch and swims off with her leg.
Enough is enough. While Orca leaps and splashes in victory, Harris shifts the historonics into high gear. “You revengeful son of a bitch. You win. You want revenge? Well you’ll have it! I’ll come out there and fight you!”
Harris and the remaining cast members head out to sea. In voice over, Rampling reiterates the loopy pop-psychology logic behind the voyage they are about to embark on. “At this point I was sure of only one thing, that his grief had made the Orca wildly unpredictable and I felt an obligation to protect both it and Nolan from the consequences of that insanity.”
Nolan intends to use explosives to drive the whale to the surface. Rampling objects and they idiotically fight over the stick of dynamite. The fuse is lit and the dynamite is dropped during the scuffle. Rampling springs into super heroine mode and tosses the dynamite overboard just as it explodes.
Upset by all the drama, she leans over the side of the boat with a case of the dry heaves. Orca swims quickly upward, racing towards the surface. She pulls her head back just in time as Orca leaps from the water with a mighty roar. He then waves his flipper at Nolan, beckoning them to follow.
Oh, by the way, Robert Carradine (aka Mr. Disposable Character) finally dies. He is plucked off the boat by the toothy jaws of Orca. Rampling doesn’t seem overly upset at his demise. In fact, everyone simply carries on with their business.
Rampling narrates in her usual pseudo-intellectual style as the boat sails farther north trough the polar ice. “The creature led, Nolan followed. If there were any other purpose to what we were doing only the Orca knew it.”
Harris has been driven to the breaking point and is so delirious that he gives us this philosophical bon mot, “He loved his family more than I loved mine.”
Silently Orca nudges an iceberg towards the humans, sandwiching the boat between huge blocks of ice. Will Sampson is (finally) crushed in an icy avalanche while Rampling and Harris make it off the boat as it sinks into the freezing waters. Rampling takes refuge on an iceberg, but Harris is trapped on a floating sheet of ice. Orca breaks the surface and gives Harris the evil eye. The final showdown has begun.
With a shrieking battle cry, Orca rises out of the water and positions himself on the edge of the ice and, like a giant see-saw, the ice tilts up. Nolan looses his footing and slides into the water.
The whale slowly circles around the helpless Nolan until, finally, with a flick of his giant tail, Orca sends Nolan flying through the air. Like a rag doll Harris crashes against the ice. His broken and bloodied body rests briefly at Rampling’s feet before slipping into the cold depths of the ocean.
A rescue chopper sweeps over the horizon on its way to rescue the stranded Rampling. Orca, his quest for vengeance now complete, quietly swims away.
In conclusion: There are both good points and bad about how they used trained killer whales for most of the production. On the plus side, a real whale is obviously more convincing than a mechanical mock-up. On the negative side, those whales lived in California and the film was shot in Newfoundland. You obviously can’t set whales loose on location, so all their scenes were shot in the tank at Marine World. The footage from the two separate locations rarely match. The sunlight and water clarity often varies from shot to shot within a single scene.
In the films frigid finale you can’t see the actor’s cold breath. That’s because it was shot at the Mediterranean Film Studios in Malta. The giant outdoor tank that overlooks the sea offers a controlled production environment while giving the illusion that the action is taking place in the middle of the ocean. The wood, plaster and Styrofoam ice formations were built around the edge of the tank and the shallow water (about five feet deep) made it easier to operate the mechanical orca in the films man vs. killer whale finale.
As ridiculous as the vigilante killer whale in Orca might seem, it wasn’t the last time this plot device was used. In Jaws the Revenge (1987), Bruce the great white hunts down the remaining members of the Brody family. It’s ironic that the fourth and final installment of the Jaws franchise would heavily borrow from the same movies that attempted to copy the original Jaws. Ah…that’s showbiz.