MARCH 8, 2012
I remember seeing the end of Orca (sometimes subtitled The Killer Whale) on HBO or something when I was a kid: the iceberg, the boat sinking, and (spoiler) the “guy” (who I now know to be Richard Harris) dying. Luckily for me and for HMAD readers, I never went back and saw the rest, because as a kid I probably would have been pretty bored, but nowadays I found it to be an amusing Jaws ripoff, in that it’s painfully serious (read: now funny to a 32 year old asshole) and yet still superior to two of the legit sequels to Jaws (it's not as good as Jaws 2, however).
It starts with a great pissing contest of sorts, where our team is menaced by a great white only for Orca to come along and dispose of the shark quite easily. In other words - Jaws has got NOTHING on Orca. Well, except for boat names; the boat in Jaws is actually named "Orca", but their boat here is called, er, "Bumpo". There are few made up words in the English language that are less iconic than “Bumpo”, and thus it’s not a surprise that the trend didn’t continue: 1979 did not produce a movie called Bumpo about a giant squid or something (where the characters would have a boat named "Jaws", to complete the cycle).
And you can see the Jaws influence throughout, as well as a few attempts to top it. The body count is a bit higher, and they do a lot of the same sort of attack scenes except on a grander scale. Remember the bit with the two fishermen on the dock in Jaws? How about a sinking HOUSE with the same sort of “slide into the water” theatrics! And Harris is basically Quint and Brody combined; he has Brody’s guilt and psychological torment (Brody had his fear of the water; Harris’ Nolan is broken due to the death of his wife and unborn child), but he has Quint’s “salty sea captain” demeanor and is also played by an actor who might as well be drinking on camera. He also has his death, sliding down toward his nemesis in the film’s finale after his boat sinks (though he’s on a sheet of ice here, and doesn’t get eaten but sort of beaten to death with the whale’s fin).
It also boasts a great score by one of the masters. While nothing is as iconic as the trademark “Dun dun… dun dun…” that John Williams provided for Jaws, Ennio Morricone’s score here is dramatic and epic throughout, and adds to the film’s charming earnestness – they really try to be a serious movie, even though it’s about a whale systematically tracking down the folks that killed his wife (Maybe the movie was pitched as "Death Wish via Sea World”?). When Harris and Charlotte Rampling discuss the whale’s thought process and such, the dialogue is ridiculous as all hell, but the music suggests this is serious, dramatic stuff. It’s wonderful, and again, this is the sort of thing that wouldn’t impress me as a kid, so I’m glad I waited until now.
These bits are broken up by whale action, which is pretty gonzo at times. The whale eating folks on the water is fine, and even the head-butting sabotage (such as when it rams the poles holding up a waterfront house) almost seem plausible. But when the thing somehow manages to figure out how to destroy the town’s fuel supply (causing an explosion several hundred feet outside of the water!) I began to wonder if the makers of that terrible GTA-esque Jaws game had actually been influenced by Orca instead of the Jaws films. It also has an uncanny ability to pinpoint attacks; at one point Robert Carradine’s character steps out of the boat’s cabin and leans over the edge, and Orca instantly leaps up, snatches him, and goes back under the water. Was he just waiting for the opportunity or did he just get lucky when he came up for air?
Oddly, what could have been the most jaw-droppingly inane moment in the movie is surprisingly disturbing: the scene that sets the plot in motion. Harris is trying to get the male but accidentally hits the female, who howls and shrieks as it actually attempts suicide (it purposely swims into the boat’s propeller, still shrieking). Then they pull it out and her unborn, now-dead baby falls out, and it looks somewhat humanoid (we’re told that whale infants resemble human infants, they even have fingers!) as it flops around the dock as the father continues to howl. It’s grotesque and horrible, and does little to paint Harris or his crew as the film’s heroes – I was already rooting for the whale after he saved them from the faux Jaws, now I’m even more on his side!
Sadly, audiences weren’t willing to accept an aquatic animal killing people for a purpose just quite yet (like the video game developers, I wonder if Jaws the Revenge’s filmmakers were looking to Orca for ideas), and the movie tanked hard in the summer of 1977, presumably because Jaws was still the biggest movie of all time and folks didn’t like ripoffs as much back then. Also they were probably all seeing Star Wars (which would unseat Jaws, making this doubly amusing) for the 50th time and thus had no time for Harris’ drunken monologues about how a whale wanted a fair fight or whatever. That’s what Instant Netflix is for, however – you can make up for your poor movie-going decisions in between rounds of Skyrim, where the whales leave you alone but those damned bears sure seem to hate your guts.
What say you?