There are plenty of people to blame for this shitty movie. There’s director Michael Anderson, producers Dino De Laurentiis and Luciano Vincenzoni; maybe even star Richard Harris. While their culpability would hold up in a court of law, the person I hold the most accountable is Steven Spielberg. If he had not ushered in the era of the blockbuster with Jaws, there is no way in hell anyone, anywhere, at any time in cinematic history, would have made Orca. Well, maybe the guys over at Asylum would have…but not in 1977.
Dino De Laurentiis was film royalty, but the kind that you shake your head at and pretend isn’t there at the family reunion. His productions brought in boatloads of cash for the film industry, but his decades-long contributions to the art of film include such shit-tastic flicks as Maximum Overdrive (thankfully Stephen King’s only effort at directing one of his stories), the 1976 remake of King Kong, the 1980 retelling of Flash Gordon, the colossal flop that was Dune, and the anonymous U-571, among many others. It wasn’t all bad or exploitative, of course. But here at Shitty Movie Sundays, we love it when directors or producers get down in the shitty and really wallow in it.
Orca is a straight up Jaws ripoff. There is no clearer way to describe it. It’s very easy to picture De Laurentiis going over the box office figures in Variety way back in the day and suggesting, no, demanding, that someone get him his Jaws by the end of the next year. Orca is a shameless film, it really is. Instead of a great white shark, audiences were given a killer whale. (First moment of shitty in the film: early on there actually is a scene with a great white, and a killer whale kicks its ass. That is how you establish dominance in a film. Take that, Spielberg!) Instead of Richard Dreyfuss, audiences were given Charlotte Rampling (an aesthetic improvement, to be sure, but lovely as she is, Charlotte Rampling never once sniffed an Oscar — Addendum 2016: I loved her in Broadchurch). Instead of a dressed-up Martha’s Vineyard, audiences got Petty Harbour, Newfoundland (no vacation spot, that). And instead of Robert Shaw, De Laurentiis provided audiences with another hard-drinking thespian from the British Isles, Richard Harris. (If I had an indestructible liver, my dream night of boozing would be hitting the pubs of London in 1967 with Robert Shaw, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, and David Niven for class and levity. Now that I think about it, an indestructible liver might not be enough.)
Unfortunately, the unapologetic shamelessness makes Orca have all the quality of a typical cash grab. Fortunately, the unapologetic shamelessness makes Orca have all the quality of a typical cash grab! I love this shitty movie. Its right up there with Trancers and Raise the Titanic. It has the panache (but not the daring abandon) of Spacehunter. And best of all, it avoids the total incompetence of something like Battleship or Piranha 3D. This is a shitty movie that gets better and better the more I think about it. I’d better stop before my Loyal Seven readers start thinking this dog is actually worth watching.
Orca is the story of a simple fisherman. Captain Nolan (Harris) and his crew troll the North Atlantic looking for great whites to catch, as aquariums pay a pretty penny for live specimens. Nolan’s eyes light up when he learns that killer whales also fetch a premium, and he sets out to catch one, despite the warnings from Hooper…I mean Rachel Bedford (Rampling). Nolan and crew find their whale, but in the act of reeling her in, she chooses suicide by prop blade rather than captivity. Meanwhile, a short distance away, her mate watches the scene unfold, helpless, and now we have the roots of all the action to follow. Orca is a revenge story, where an animal in nature is after the man who hunted and killed his mate. There she is, hung from a yardarm above the deck. The killer whale has every reason to OH MY GOD WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?! They actually put this on film?! I’m actually seeing this?!
Lord love the 1970s. It was an era of free expression. It was an era when rules were thrown away in all aspects of life and not redefined for years to come. It was an era when a scene that would make cable news go apoplectic today was deemed acceptable by the MPAA for a PG audience. I won’t spoil the whale’s true motivations for hunting Nolan here. But I will say, I understand, my cetacean brother. I get it, and I can’t believe they had the balls to film it.
Afterwards, Nolan shows much regret, in his Irish Catholic manner, but it’s not enough for the whale. The whale begins tormenting the small fishing town where Nolan’s boat is docked, all in an effort to force Nolan to come out to sea for a final confrontation. There’s even an appearance from a local Native American mystic, Umliak (Will Sampson), who tells Nolan that he has to put out to sea or the whale will destroy the town. It’s actually somewhat believable when a viewer remembers the town survives by its fishing industry alone. The whale is out in the harbor tearing every boat it can find to pieces.
After a few people get chewed up in hilarious, yet bloodless fashion (PG film, remember), Nolan agrees that yes, it is time to head out and fight the whale on its turf, in order to find redemption for his sins. This sets up a climax among the ice in the Arctic that would only have been more absurd had it taken place on the moon.
Everyone who was involved in this dog, I salute you. Michael Anderson, Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Dino De Laurentiis, Will Sampson, Keenan Wynn, Bo Derek, Robert freaking Carradine, I cannot express to all of you how much I appreciate this truly awful movie that you came together to make. My cinematic life is more complete for having seen your work. Orca is a much more entertaining film than Alien: Resurrection.