Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 14, 2004)
When Jaws became such an enormous smash in the summer of 1975, inevitably we got a string of copycats. Probably the most prominent of these hit the screens two years later via 1977ís Orca. However, while Orca was touted as a flick similar to the shark attack classic, it played out in a very different manner.
At the flickís start, we meet the denizens of a fishing boat who chase after sharks near Newfoundland. They come upon a big one but Captain Nolanís (Richard Harris) attempts to capture him become thwarted when diver Rachel (Charlotte Rampling) gets in the way. She comes on board and leaves her partner Ken (Robert Carradine) in their raft, but he soon falls out and tempts the shark. Before Bruce can bite, however, a killer whale rushes to his rescue and whomps the toothy beast.
We then jump to the classroom, where Rachel teaches about orcas. She relates their intelligence and general nature. She tells us of their gentle tone when tame but how they can turn violent when provoked. Nolan turns into a fan and desires to learn more about the whales.
Nolan plans to capture an orca and sell it, which Rachel combats. They display some sexual tension but she remains quite antagonistic toward him. She fears that his efforts will do little more than harm the whales, and he quickly proves her correct. When he and his crew first find an orca, he wounds one who then tries to kill herself in the shipís propeller. They capture the wounded female and bring her aboard, where a dead fetus flops out of her.
This sets off the male, who wails and seeks revenge. He attacks the boat and nearly sinks it. Nolan decides to cut loose the captured female in the hope thisíll get him off their backs, but the plan fails and the enraged male chomps a crewmember.
The female eventually dies, and the male pushes the carcass on-shore, apparently as a reminder to the humans of what they did. Rachel and her friend Jacob Umilak (Will Sampson) warn Nolan that the whales will remember what he did and come back to get him, and he indicates that he might give up his pursuit. The male whale doesnít know this, however, and he purposefully destroys a docked boat as part of his revenge.
This sets dual obsessions into play. Some want Nolan to go after the vengeful beast since his actions start to destroy the fishing business in the local area, but he resists the notion despite his fixation on the creature. In the meantime, the bitter whale continues his attempts to knock off the captain.
As I alluded at the start, anyone who enters Orca and expects a taut thriller akin to Jaws will leave disappointed. This flick sets its tone immediately with loving shots of the whales at play accompanied by syrupy music. Of course, it then quickly pays homage to Jaws with a menacing shot of a shark and deep string music, but thatís as close as we come to the tone of the Spielberg classic.
Instead, we get a politically correct environmental tale that feels like the folks at Greenpeace created it. Actually, thatís probably not a fair assessment, as Orca presents more depth than that. To be sure, it favors the whaleís side of things. Whereas the shark in Jaws was a mindless killing machine, the whale here acts out of a sense of logical anger. Nolan takes away his mate and child due to his own selfish actions, so we clearly sympathize with the aquatic avengerís quest.
I wonít claim to understand the capabilities of whales, but Orca does seem to stretch their talents pretty broadly. Itís not as bad as the vengeful shark of Jaws 4, but it feels very hard to accept that the orca is quite so cognizant and able to plan his actions. Yeah, whales are fairly intelligent beasts, but this doesnít come across as remotely plausible, and the theme makes the movie veer towards silliness at times. The flickís many shots of the whaleís angry stare donít help, and by the time the orca single-flipperedly destroyed a local facility, I thought it went way too far into the world of fantasy.
However, I do appreciate the movieís more balanced tone that doesnít favor man over beast. This isnít a slam on the more single-minded Jaws. I adore the latter film, and itís roughly 100 times better made and more entertaining than Orca. Nonetheless, I like this flickís attempts at balance and its refusal to portray things as black and white. Nolan comes across neither as hero nor villain. We see his flaws and his dilemmas in a realistic manner, and we identify with his struggle to do whatís right.
Even with all the touchy-feely environmentalism on display, Orca manages some good action sequences. The scene in which Nolan initially assaults the whales plays well, as do some subsequent pieces. These donít rival the thrills of Jaws, but they add some excitement to this effort.
I wish I didnít feel so compelled to contrast Orca with Jaws, for such comparisons may not be fair even if the former exists solely due to the popularity of the latter. Orca doesnít live up to the Spielberg classic, but it has its moments. It manages to become something more than just a simple rip-off, as it offers some useful material of its own.