Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Monday, January 19, 2015

[Aquaphobia] Orca (1977)

Captain Nolan and his crew are prowling the waters in search of a great white shark to capture and sell to an aquarium, but when this ultimate predator that they are preying upon is attacked and ultimately defeated, they turn their sights on the only creature that could so easily humiliate the great white: the orca...a killer whale.

Orca - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster
Nolan later captures a pregnant female orca, but once she is on board, she quickly suffers a miscarriage. Disgusted, Nolan uses a firehose to wash the unformed fetus from the deck, while the male orca watches on in horror. He proceeds to attack the ship, seeking the release of his mate. Fearing for the safety of his crew, Nolan eventually releases her (losing one of his own, Novak, in the process), but it is too late. She dies from trauma and the injuries sustained during capture.

Of all the interesting facts about killer whales that are bandied about in this film, there are two that are most important to the plot. Killer whales are a monogamous species, and they remain with their mate for life. Also, they tend to hold a grudge and have a penchant for seeking revenge.

So when Nolan accidentally brought about the death of the female orca and her unborn child, the surviving whale didn't just lose two members of his species. He lost his entire family. It's no wonder that he took it personally and pursued a vendetta against the captain. Unfortunately for him, Nolan and his crew made it back to shore—though his vessel was more than a little beat up—before vengeance could be taken. The orca then had to begin a systematic method of torment in order to coax Nolan back out to sea.

First he rolled the corpse of his mate onto the beach where Nolan had docked—the message clearly being, I know what you did and I know where you are. He then turns the villagers against Nolan by driving away the fish that are essential to the local economy, sinking fishing boats that were wholly uninvolved in the death of his mate, and yes, eventually causing an explosion that eradicates the town's fuel supply.

By the time the whale attacks Nolan's oceanside house, breaking its stilts and sending it crashing into the ocean, costing Annie, another crew member, her leg, Nolan is convinced that he must give the orca what he wants: an epic showdown on the ocean, winner take all. Now that the crew consists only of Novak and the bearded Paul, Novak recruits three additional characters to assist him in his pursuit—marine biologists Ken and Rachel, and Native American Umilak.

The orca attacks the boat briefly, and plucks Ken from the deck—just enough to get Nolan's attention. He then amazingly motions with his tail for Nolan to follow him, which Nolan does, leading his crew farther and farther out to sea in a seemingly endless pursuit. The journey lands them in arctic waters, surrounded by ice and low on fuel, and this is the setting for their final showdown.

It is a fairly epic battle that makes good use of the frozen locale, and in the end, the Orca wins. He is, after all, a force of nature and Nolan went after him unprepared and practically unarmed—almost as if he never really intended to defeat him. Nolan may have started out as rather melancholy, but he ended up bleak and broken...even before the whale got ahold of him.

Orca - Aye, Captain Nolan
Aye, Captain Nolan
Years prior to the beginning of the film, Nolan's pregnant wife was killed by a drunk driver. Once he got past seeing the orca as just another sea beast and realized that it was capable of the same emotions as man, he was overcome with guilt and grief over what he had done. Once upon a time, he had been the whale and a lush in an automobile had been the fisherman. Nolan, though, did not launch a crusade of vengeance like the whale did. In his own words, "He loved his family more than I loved mine!" While this is probably untrue, it is still heartbreaking to hear the sentiment. Although our sympathies initially lie with the whale, they gradually shift with Nolan's emotional growth.

Of the other characters in the film, scientist Ken is the most one-dimensional. We know next to nothing about him and he doesn't do much other than find himself in occasional jeopardy. The most interesting thing about his character is that he is first saved by the orca (he was the target of the thwarted shark attack) and then destroyed by the orca. It's like the new kid in school protecting you from the bully at recess so that he can beat you up after class.

Rachel is something of a contradiction in that she studies the whales, presumably wants to protect them, and yet signs on for Nolan's crusade anyway. She is repulsed by his quest, and yet drawn to his charisma. She finds his darkness attractive, but wants to be the light in his shadows.  Even then, girls dug emo.  Their romance is definite, but it is subtle, and does not comprise a prominent plot point. She is a secondary character, but it is her that provides the narration, showing us that this is her telling of another person's tragedy.

Umilak is the flipside of the Ken & Rachel coin. Whereas they are the scientifically minded students of the whale, he is the spiritual student. He talks of the myth and legends behind the creature, and of Nolan's responsibility to face it in mortal combat. He doesn't like the idea of it, but he still believes it to be true, and enlists in hope of affecting a positive ending.

If a coin were to have three sides, the third side would be local fisherman Alan Swain. He is not concerned with the science of the whale or the spirituality of the whale, he is only concerned with its real world applications. Nolan led the whale to the village, and is thus responsible for the devastation it brought. It is therefore his obligation to stop it one way or another, not out of some mythological duty but rather a basic human one. Swain turns the other townsfolk against Nolan as a way to convince him of what needs to be done, and although Swain is sometimes painted as the villain, he is not. He is just trying to protect his people. Even Nolan harbors no ill will against him, admitting that he would do the same if he were in Swain's position.

Orca - Orca, The Chilly Whale
Orca, The Chilly Whale
In the end, Nolan is killed when the orca hurls him mightily against an iceberg. Victorious, the whale returns to sea and we switch to his point-of-view as the closing credits begin to roll. Though never explicitly stated, it appears as if he attempts to breach the surface for air but is unable to break through the ice, meaning that his all-consuming quest for vengeance may have cost him his life, as well.

To call this a great movie would be an overstatement, but it's nowhere near as bad as many reviews will have you believe. It does require a hefty amount of suspension of disbelief, but not more than your typical horror movie. It only seems that way as this is, ostensibly, a natural horror film and not a supernatural one, yet it doesn't seem to operate under the rules of nature. And so, a whale who is able to respond to a tragedy in much the same way that Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson would comes across as much more ludicrous than, say, a child murderer who returns from the dead to claim more victims in their dreams.

As with far too many animal attack movies, this one gets lumped in as a JAWS rip-off, which is not entirely fair—but that is the curse of any such movie that followed in the wake of the great white shark. There are some similarities, of course, but ORCA is more of a spiritual successor to JAWS than a mere copy—or, perhaps, a Moby Dick in reverse. The icy setting for the final battle, though, has echoes of another literary classic: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In a way, the orca is the monster that Nolan created—not in a laboratory, but through his actions.

Jaws, Moby Dick, and Frankenstein were all literary creations before being put to film, and Orca is no different. The novel of the same name was published in 1977, the same year as the movie was released. It was written by author Arthur Herzog, who had also written the killer bee novel The Swarm, itself turned into a film in 1978. ORCA was adapted by Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, both of whom had scripted a number of Italian crime and western films. Directorial duties went to Michael Anderson, who also brought us 1984 (1956), AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS (1956), and LOGAN'S RUN (1976).

Even those who revile the film (and there are plenty) tend to admit that the musical score by Ennio Morricone is pretty solid. It's full of slow, haunting melodies that couldn't be more different than the JAWS theme you might expect. Morricone is, of course, most well-known for composing the scores of Italian westerns such as Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name trilogy but has branched out significantly since.

It was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, whose filmography reads like the marquee of a cult movie marathon: cult classics like DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968), BARBARELLA (1968), FLASH GORDON (1980), CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), and CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984); macho favorites SERPICO (1973) and DEATH WISH (1974); animal flicks KING KONG (1976), KING KONG LIVES (1986), and THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977); horror movies HALOWEEN II (1981), HALLOWEEN III (1982), and ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992); Stephen King adaptations THE DEAD ZONE (1983), CAT'S EYE (1985), SILVER BULLET (1985), MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986), and SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK (1991); Hannibal Lecter films MANHUNTER (1986), HANNIBAL (2001), RED DRAGON (2002), and HANNIBAL RISING (2007); and well over a hundred others. God bless the man, he produced these types of films almost right up until his death in 2010.

Of the smaller roles in the film, the doomed Novak was played by character actor Keenan Wynn, whose career was glossed over in my review of PIRANHA, in which he also appeared. Ken was played by Robert Carradine, who appeared in many films (including the remake of HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP), but will forever be known as Lewis Skolnick in the REVENGE OF THE NERDS franchise. Annie was played by Bo Derek (in her first film role), and is mostly there to suffer leg trauma after leg trauma. She would achieve real fame in 1979 when she appeared in the film "10", playing Dudley Moore's ideal mate, and has cropped up as the Sexy Blonde routinely ever since. The semi-villainous Swain was played by Scott Walker, who had appeared in the previously-mentioned THE WHITE BUFFALO, and would later hunt frogs in THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979). Umilak was played by Creek Nation actor Will Sampson, who also appeared in THE WHITE BUFFALO, and is most well-known for his parts in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975) and POLTERGEIST II (1986).

Our heroine (of sorts), Rachel, was played by Charlotte Rampling, who started acting in 1965 and continues to this day. She has appeared in favorites such as VANISHING POINT (1971), ASYLUM (1972), ZARDOZ (1974), ANGEL HEART (1987), and the eighth season of DEXTER (2013).

Orca - Original Newspaper Ad
From The Milwaukee Journal, 07.19.77
And finally, our hero Nolan was played by Irish actor Richard Harris, who can also be found in CAMELOT (1967 and 1982, both times as King Arthur), GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (1977, as Gulliver), the post-apocalyptic RAVAGERS (1979), TARZAN THE APE MAN (1981, with Bo Derek), and HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE (2001) and HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002) as Dumbledore.

ORCA did manage to turn a profit, but it was still not considered a box office success. They never made a sequel, which is probably for the best—I'm not sure that the world could have handled it—but ironically, when JAWS 4: THE REVENGE came out in 1987, it featured a shark that behaved very much like the whale did here.

So...who's ripping off who?


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