Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Orca (1977): Vengeance on the High Seas

Orca is a 1977 film, made in the wake of the formidable box office success of Steven Spielberg's Jaws, that features a killer whale out for revenge against the fishermen that killed its mate. Don't worry. It's actually better (and more emotionally traumatizing) than it sounds.

The story takes place in Newfoundland, where an enterprising fisherman named Nolan (played broodingly by Richard Harris) has his heart set on capturing an orca and sell it to an aquarium, despite the wishes of a local marine biologist named Rachael (Charlotte Rampling). The plan goes terribly wrong, however, and Nolan ends up accidentally killing a pregnant female whale in the film's most heart-stabbing and horrific scene. Wracked with sorrow, the dead whale's mate decides to go after Nolan and his crew, and Nolan, deeply haunted by his actions, has no choice but to settle his business with the orca out on the open sea!

For the most part, this movie plays quite well. There's a dirge-like atmosphere over the whole film, and this helps give weight to the outlandish premise. I also very much appreciate how the movie doesn't outright vilify Richard Harris's character. Often in this type of story, Charlotte Rampling's character would have been the lead and Harris would be the bad guy, perhaps wanting to kill all the whales for profit or something. Instead, Nolan is simply a naïve and pig-headed fisherman. When he kills the female whale, he's guilt-ridden and even relates to the creature out to kill him by recalling the death of his own wife and child. This makes the showdown at the end even more emotionally heavy.

The film's attempts to scientifically set up the killer whale's quest for vengeance are frankly laughable. The movie's premise really only works effectively when it's treated with a mythic quality, and, no matter how many "pieces of information" are contained in a whale call or how big their brains are or what the shape of a whale embryo is, you just can't explain an orca revenge plot rationally. Plus the "scientific" jargon just comes off as New Age-y and shockingly weird, painting the orca as some kind of supreme being.

The whale's motives and character are far more effectively realized in Ennio Morricone's score for the film. If a composer could be given an acting credit, you could put Morricone down for the whale. His heartfelt and chilling theme evokes love and loss, the engine for the orca's revenge. Not to repeat Alex's words in this fine article, but it's a testament to the power of film scoring when an audience can actually deeply feel something for a freaking whale, a creature that doesn't speak (thank heaven) or physically emote. Its whole persona is wrapped up in the soundtrack.

And, since this is a man vs. nature film set in Newfoundland, we of course have a token, borderline offensive Native American character.

"Oh! Uh... My ancestors and the Great Spirit or something."

Frankly, I don't know why this character exists other than to add some variety to the supporting cast. He really doesn't do much except babble on about the spirits of whales and what his ancestors did regarding whale attacks in the past. To make things even more confusing, his character does not one but two total 180's. He first informs Richard Harris that it's not a good idea to kill whales, then he tells him he should kill the whale, before finally holding Richard Harris at gun point and telling him to turn the boat around and not kill the whale. I don't get it.

Backed by famed Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, there's no getting around the fact that this movie was made in reaction to Jaws. In fact, Orca seems to reference the Spielberg hit in the film's opening, in which a great white is rammed straight out of the water and then ripped to shreds by a killer whale. Some minor plot similarities exist, though they are fairly superficial. These include Nolan and Rachael very vaguely resembling Quint and Hooper respectively (in their roles, but certainly not their characters), the town pressuring the main character to kill the underwater menace, and a final hunt for the creature on the ocean which leads to a finale involving a sinking boat.

Directed by prolific British filmmaker Michael Anderson (who had done the sci-fi classic Logan's Run the previous year), Orca is a pretty well-put-together flick, with the occasional breathtaking shot out at sea.

The special effects in the movie are actually pretty good most of the time. The whales were, to my knowledge, brought to life with a combination of animatronics work and real killer whale footage shot at Marine World. A lot of the effects shots trump Jaws in their ambition, and some of the animatronics best the legendarily finicky Bruce prop from that film. The main problem in Orca's effects lies with the aquarium footage, as the bluish green water in those sequences clashes with the ocean shots. Plus, the edges and floor of the aquarium tank can be glimpsed now and again.

Cool whales don't look at explosions.
All told, Orca works far more than it has any right to, thanks to a relentlessly somber tone, solid effects work, and yet another brilliant Morricone soundtrack. At the time of this writing, the movie is available to watch instantly on Netflix, so I'd recommend giving it a spin!

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