***/**** Image B Sound B
starring Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, Bo Derek
screenplay by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati
directed by Michael Anderson
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I was scared off of Orca, widely considered to be one of the worst films of all-time. The movie had a reputation as a bad Jaws rip-off and my last viewing of a bad Jaws rip-off was Lamberto Bava's Devilfish on "Mystery Science Theater 3000", which was awful enough to make me question what I was doing spending my Saturday mornings watching "Mystery Science Theater 3000". Well, I'm pleased to report that Orca's reputation is completely unwarranted. Critics and audiences were wrong, they just didn't get it. They labelled it a "Jaws rip-off" before setting foot in the theatre and watched it on autopilot.
You know, I would actually go so far as to say that Orca is almost as good as Jaws. This isn't to say that Michael Anderson is as good a filmmaker as Steven Spielberg, let's not go nuts. For starters, Orca is painfully over-edited. Anderson refuses to let shots linger and he uses too many of them to convey an action. It can be confusing. Perhaps knowing that he botched the storytelling, Anderson occasionally has a character describe what's happening onscreen. Whether he was compensating for a lack of footage of the film's killer whales (who are required to do things that are likely against their natural inclination) or trying to inject a false sense of momentum into the proceedings, clearly he hopes that a lot of cuts will provide the illusion that something is happening. Anderson never does anything as playful or sophisticated as the Hitchcock-ian "bad hat Harry" sequence from Jaws, nor does he ever come close to approximating Spielberg's use of negative space in isolating his swimmers in the vastness of the ocean. It's not insignificant that Spielberg couldn't get much footage of his monster, either, but instead of sacrificing the film's integrity for more money shots, he built a sense of anticipation around their absence. At the time Orca was filmed, Anderson was already a seasoned pro, having helmed Logan's Run and the first version of 1984. Sadly, the only thing all that experience seems to have taught him is how to bring a project in on budget.
Well-executed, visually kinetic filmmaking is extremely important to me; I'm beginning to think it's more important to me than it is to most other critics. I'm sort of dumbfounded that films like In the Company of Men or Junebug have received such glowing reviews when they exhibit so few traces of joy, passion, or creativity. Maybe it's the frustrated director in me, maybe it's just callow auteur worship, but I don't see why you would enter the business unless you're looking to get a hard-on in the editing suite.
That said, well-executed, visually kinetic filmmaking is only going to take you so far. What has always bugged me about Jaws is the entirely unearned and rather glib happy ending. The humans kill the shark, signifying a triumph of man over nature, and it seems incongruent with stuff like, say, using negative space to isolate the swimmers in the vastness of the ocean. Throughout the film, Spielberg milks this medieval morality of man fucking around in waters he doesn't belong, but when all's said and done he has the humans win because, well, he didn't really care that much about any of this anyway--why not go out on a high note? Jaws is kind of a crock. It isn't about the epic battle between man and nature and it isn't particularly about the characters inhabiting it. It isn't really about anything other than itself. Instead of exploring the thematic implications of the piece, Spielberg focuses his energy on filling in the margins with clever gags like a shark video game at the breakwater. The implicit message of Jaws's canonization by critics and audiences alike is that killer shark movies are intrinsically stupid and it's a question of how smart you're going to be about being stupid.
Orca, however, treats the conflict between man and nature sincerely and ends the right way: bittersweetly and reverent of the great unknown. The film works with the material instead of condescending to it, making it simultaneously more primitive and more evolved than the Spielberg picture. Between the two, I still slightly favor Jaws for the aesthetics--there's ultimately no excuse for Michael Anderson's hackwork. All the same, I've grown very fond and very protective of Orca. Between this, Mark Robson's Earthquake, and Stephen Hopkins's A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, I'm beginning to wonder if the studio B-movie is the last hiding place for genuine unaffected humanist sentiment. I've seen much better films, mind you, but few as weirdly unshakeable as these.
On a routine shark-hunting trip, fisherman Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) sees a killer whale casually but brutally demolish the great white he had been trailing. He decides that these whales are the real game of the ocean and sets out to bring one back alive to live in an aquarium. In a botched attempt to tranquilize a male whale with a doped-up harpoon, Nolan nicks the fin of his target and severely injures his mate. The female begins screaming and swims into the propeller in an apparent attempt to commit suicide. Nolan manages to rescue her and take her aboard, where she miscarries. She was pregnant! Horrified, Nolan flushes the fetus off his ship and resigns to return the mother to the sea. Her mate butts into their ship until Nolan does indeed release the female back into the water. As the ship crew goes back home, the male whale pushes the now-dead body of his mate onto shore and vows revenge on the humans who destroyed his family.
The whale miscarriage is among the most shocking moments I've ever witnessed in a mainstream film, standing side-by-side with the crucifix masturbation in The Exorcist. Ennio Morricone's great Once Upon a Time in the West meets The Way We Were score peaks with shrieking violins just as the dead baby falls out of the mama whale's belly, which Anderson depicts in melodramatic slow-motion. The idea of the miscarriage and the image proper are so unrelentingly horrifying that the audience is denied the safety valve of ironic distance usually afforded by such excesses, thus they work as intended in accentuating our violation.
It's essential that the whale miscarry, as, in order to buy into the storyline, the audience must both anthropomorphize the avenging killer whale to what would otherwise be a ridiculous degree as well as believe the idea that professional fisherman Nolan would feel guilty for killing this whale. Nolan is the protagonist of the piece but the whale is not the villain--Nolan struck first and took away everything the whale held dear. We figure Nolan deserves what's coming to him, but it's hard not to sympathize with him. He's genuinely remorseful, ashamed of what he has done and devastated by his inability to make amends, and remorse matters a hell of a lot when it comes to how tightly we cling to our feelings of vengeance. His eventual death reminds a lot of McCabe's in McCabe and Mrs. Miller: He's this sweet but dumb sonuvabitch, and in the cold logic of natural selection, the dumb is going to get you killed and the sweet isn't going to do much to prevent it.
Because the whale is seeking vengeance against Nolan, he is hanging around the coast and scaring away the fish the town depends upon, not to mention tearing up beach-front properties. The other fishermen insist that Nolan go out and kill the whale, but of course Nolan regrets killing the whale's family and the last thing he wants to do is finish the job. This is a genuine moral dilemma: Nolan is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Does he want to screw over the fishermen he regards as his peers ("I'd do the same thing, if I were them," he admits once he receives word of their death threats) or does he screw over the whale he has sinned against? There are a couple of shades of overkill in the screenplay: We learn that Nolan's wife and child were killed by a drunk driver, hence he is also able to see where the whale is coming from. Yet even this provides more weight to Nolan's transgression, helping to establish it as a serious counterpoint to putting the fishermen out of business. Compare this to the relatively amoral Jaws, in which the oceanside community of Amity Island can't close down the beaches lest their businesses go under, leaving killing the shark as their only real option. The question, mind you, isn't "should we kill the shark," it's "can we kill the shark."
Orca lives or dies by its anthropomorphization of the whale. On a surface level, the movie works: I could accept that this whale was a sentient being and I sympathized with him. On a deeper level, detached from the actual experience of watching the film, it's not unfair to question whether attributing human qualities to whales creates a myth about them that obscures their true nature. Killer whales, I'll have you know, simply don't track people out to the coast to kill them. I guess Orca is "guilty" of anthropomorphizing whales, but it's a lot more savvy about the ramifications in doing so than critics have given it credit for.
Early in the film, a marine biologist played by Charlotte Rampling delivers a lecture on the inferiority of human language compared to that of whales. She comments that if the killer whale were to understand our speech it would think us mildly retarded. She doesn't believe that killer whales are the equal to human beings, she thinks them our superiors! Notably, the film never argues that it's possible for humans and whales to ever communicate on the same level. Nolan frequently expresses a wish to apologize to the whale, to show his remorse and end things without anybody getting hurt. Alas, the whale is by design unreceptive to any such request. Superior communication! A lot of good that does both human and whale. Near the end of the film, Rampling comments via voiceover:
I told myself that somehow I was responsible for Nolan's state of mind. That had filled his head with romantic notions about a whale capable not only of profound grief, which I believed, but also of calculated and vindictive actions, which I found hard to be believe, despite all that had happened.
In other words, she's lost her whale god and is forced to accept that mankind, for all its foibles and flaws, is the highest form of life there is. Orca is too good a film to be considered Seventies schlock: By taking anthropomorphization to its logical conclusion (whales, being humanlike, are therefore susceptible to diseased human ideals such as vengeance), Orca captures the sad sense of crushed idealism that distinguishes many of the best films of that golden age for cinema.
Paramount's DVD release of Orca (the packaging calls it Orca: The Killer Whale) is adequate at best. As this is a catalogue title we're talking about, one can't claim they're deferring to the film's beleaguered reputation. The 2.32:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation does a pretty good job on a pretty lousy source print; the studio logo that precedes the film is scratched and the climactic showdown in the artic is a little too sunbaked. For the most part, I felt that I was looking at poorly preserved celluloid as opposed to a botched digital transfer. The altogether passable Dolby Digital 2.0 audio sounds a little hollow save Morricone's booming score. There are no extras, not even trailer, but the menu cursor is a whale fin. Originally published: June 26, 2006.