The haunting sorrow of ‘Orca’

Who’s the real villain?

“Dude, that movie is such a ripoff!” The Plagiarists series explores the creature feature movies released post-Jaws to see if they’re carbon copies or something new for us to chew on.

Orca by Michael Anderson, 1977
Starring Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, Bo Derek, Keenan Wynn and Robert Carradine
Written by: Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati
Budget: $6 million
Box office: $14.7 million

First things of note: (1) Orca is primarily filmed in beautiful Newfoundland! (2) Marineland is telling on itself and (3) this movie is… pretty good!!

When I first watched Orca, I was excited! I was ready for a flashy shark-cum-orca movie with a supercharged killer whale ctrl-c’d onto the shark.

But instead I got the horrifically traumatizing revenge story of a male orca systematically hunting down Captain Nolan and his crew who killed his female mate and unborn child while trying to capture them for an aquarium and the orca doesn’t stop until every last one of those assholes is dead or sufficiently maimed.

When Orca first came out, it was not well received, garnering reviews such as a “soggy shark thriller” and “man vs. beast nonsense” and still holds a dismal 9% rating on the tomatoes. But, and with all due respect, those people are wrong and, I would argue, maybe even didn’t watch the movie.

Orca is a deeply, deeply haunting, incredibly upsetting story that has been outwardly maligned as a Jaws ripoff. To be fair, Orca is not without its Jaws influences — a beautiful score by Ennio Morricone, great mechanical beasts and live footage and a Quint-style anti-hero — and, most notably or damningly depending on how you look at it, it was conceived by producers Dino De Laurentiis and Luciano Vincenzoni after watching Jaws and wanting to find a tougher fish (note: a killer whale is a dolphin, not a fish).

But! What stands out to me is how Orca subverts expectations of the Jaws-style creature feature centering humans as the true villains — something Jaws and most shark movies fail to do — and developing the emotionality of our monster.

It has the right level of camp with a glaring, reflective orca eye and a truly batshit performance by Richard Harris, who insisted on doing his own stunts and almost died several times. Some real Tom Cruise shit. So Justice for Orca, I say! Now let’s really get into it.

Hot take: Orca was prescient about a lot of killer whale behaviour.

Something people zero in on with this movie is, despite the moniker, killer whales are not killers. The comment usually forms two camps: the “this is unfair to orcas!!!” camp or the, slightly more loquacious “there’s too big an obstacle turning our notion of the friendly killer whale into the villain” camp.

In short: a whale would never behave like this! They would never hold a funeral procession for their dead or behave erratically and commit self harm or ever harm a human.

While we have the benefit of hindsight, I still think both camps are wrong and that’s the, unintended or intended, brilliance of this movie: the orca was never the villain and instead imbued with human emotions and behaviours to endear the audience to him (though Charlotte Rampling as Rachel, a cetologist certainly tries to establish how fearsome orcas can be) and as humans continue to disrupt orcas’ lives, as the zeitgeist says, the orca vibe has shifted. Orcas may not be feared, but they should be respected.

There are no documented cases of human death by orcas in the wild, probably in part because in their natural habitat they live wonderful lives! They are part of close-knit family groups that share a unique culture and bond, swim far and deep distances, are expert pack hunters who’ve successfully vanquished Great White Sharks and even Blue Whales and, on average, male orcas live to 30 years (max 50–60 years) and female orcas to 46 years (max 80–90 years).

Conversely, orcas do not do well in captivity. Performing derivative live shows and living in artificial enclosures without their familial pods leads to countless issues chief among them dying well before their life expectancies and developing many health problems such as pneumonia, infections, depression and significant behavioural issues. Case in point: Yaka and Nepo, captive orcas from Marineland of the Pacific and Marine World Africa (now Six Flags Discovery Kingdom) the real whale stars in the movie (you can tell it’s them because of the slumped over fins, again, not naturally occuring in the wild), were captured in Pender Harbour, British Columbia in 1969 along with four other members of their pod and both died well before their life expectancies: Nepo, a male, at age 15 and Yaka, a female, at 31 after a shocking 27 years in captivity.

Given all of this, and yes I’m about to posit that the whales know something horrific awaits them or their family members who are carted away (it almost always does), it makes complete sense that the orca in our movie would howl for his captive dying mate, the pod would mourn her death and that an orca would perhaps seek revenge against the people who inflicted this damage. That is why the whale in this movie is so terrifying: unlike the shark that seems to attack for no reason and at any time, our whale is calculated, methodical, surgical even with his actions. For those bemoaning the severity of the whale’s response and questioning if the movie really needed to go that far, to that I would, well it’s a movie. So yes, probably.

The lessons learned here are don’t get caught in the revenge plot of an orca, the orca fin looks just as menacing as a great white fin and this movie builds a pretty plausible case for orcas as moral arbiters of the sea. Honestly, the least believable thing in this movie is that Captain Nolan would be that upset that Annie was attacked.

Creature featured rating: 9 shark teeth

Yes, a female dies first. :(

But it’s our beautiful mother-to-be whale who is harpooned, shredded against the motor in an attempt to kill herself and then strung up by her tail only to have her fetus violently expelled from her womb and then afterwards she is cut down, dumped overboard and left to slowly and agonizingly die.

It is honestly one of the most awful scenes I have ever watched, with sounds of the female whale screaming in pain and whimpering for death with her frantic mate howling for her release still reverberating through my bones. Nothing will set the stakes like killing a pregnant animal, be it human or whale.

In terms of a Chrissie-style death scene, it doesn’t have the same film technique flourish, instead going for your jugular with the emotional weight of the scene that will be burned into your brain the moment you watch it.

Oh and if you think the male orca doesn’t push his dead mate to shore as a message to Captain Nolan he knows what he did, you would be wrong. We stan an emotionally traumatized, petty king ready for revenge.

Dead girls rating: 1 part of jean shorts

As Randall D. Larson aptly noted, Orca is the sadly beautiful story about a whale and the score, by the legendary Ennio Morricone, humanizes the whale and reflects his emotions. In short, this score is s.t.u.n.n.i.n.g., complementing and amplifying every moment of tension, anguish, fear and sadness. It’s like Morricone invented the screeching violin and wanted everyone to know it.

Most notable is, similarly to Jaws and its infamous two notes, Morricone creates a recognizable theme for Orca weaving it throughout the movie in multiple variations and settings signifying important moments and emotions for the audience. Contrasting the beautifully deep theme is another of harsh, stinging instrumentals (again those screeching violins!) that punctuate the vengeance and anger of the whale.

Orca would certainly be a lesser film without this score: its joyful highs and terrifying lows would not hit as hard without the swirling, multi-dimensional score of Morricone. However, it definitely doesn’t rip off John Williams’ infamous score, instead creating equally dynamic moments, like, for example, after setting the fishing village on fire, the whale leaps in front of the burning scenery as a fit of swirling violins plays and I thought to myself: This. Is. CINEMA.

Primal score rating: 6 staccato notes

In one of the more direct ripoffs of Jaws, the president of the local fishermen’s union (lol) Al Swain tells Captain Nolan to kill that whale and/or leave because the fish are scared away by its presence plus he’s destroying their boats and village and that’s harming ThE eCoNoMy!!! (Again, orcas belong to the dolphin family. Also fair points are made about the other stuff.)

It’s a little less morally dubious than our Jaws mayor sending fleets of unprotected children into the water to hopefully not get attack by the obviously present shark *still staring at camera* but it’s a little ridiculous for the Newfoundland fisherman to pin all the fish scarcity on the whale when in about a 10 years Newfoundland’s economy will tank due to decades of unsustainable and overfishing practices.

Again let’s maybe dust off those mirrors and take a real good look at the person in the reflection.

Umilak, played by Will Sampson, also warns Nolan repeatedly that he must leave and/or battle the whale in short asides where he just appears out of nowhere in the shot in what one can only imagine is the racist underpinnings of the director creating a “mystical Native American” character. Not a great.

Fake news rating: 1 crumbled bill

Much like the other ways this movie subverts the norms of Jaws and our expectations, Orca starts the ante at 11 by first killing the female whale and then expelling a whale fetus from the dead mother and hosing it off the deck of the ship as its would-be-father screams in agony in, again, one of the most horrific and traumatic scenes I have ever watched in my whole entire life. I cannot emphasize enough how truly, spectacularly awful this scene is and how the phrase “flushed it away” will never leave my soul.

Seriously, if you didn’t know it was coming (I didn’t), it is one of the most shocking things you’ll watch. Ever. And if you do, much like when Mufasa dies, you will fast forward that part until Timon and Pumba show up, except there is no Timon and Pumba waiting to save you here, it’s just the cold dead eyes of more revenge and sorrow.

Again, really building a sympathetic case for our whale to hunt down these humans.

Think of the children! rating: 1 inflatable raft

The essence of the Quint speech is he bares his soul: he cracks himself open, just a bit, and gives you a sliver of why he is the way he is. Why he is obsessed. Why he is irrational. Why he is doomed.

Richard Harris is decidedly going through it as Captain Nolan, a man obsessed with capturing an orca, the true apex predator of the sea (slam on great whites and Quint), and is turned haunted, reckless and insane by his actions and those of his whale.

Albeit more protracted and a little less eloquent, Nolan’s revelations are no less a window into his soul as he, in a slice of vulnerability, confesses to Rachel that his pregnant wife was killed by a drunk driver and now he has become the whale’s drunk driver. Throughout Orca, we see Nolan slowly descend into madness in snippets, first in disbelief a whale would single him out for revenge, then into hubris that he can outsmart him and finally into a sense of finality: he seeks not retribution, but absolution, knowing this battle of mirror image can only end when one is shattered. Much like Quint, he follows his fish (again, a killer whale is a dolphin) out to sea.

A key difference between the intent of the Quint vs. Nolan speech is that, I would argue, Nolan’s doesn’t make us sympathize with him and his actions, but instead makes us believe he at least knows the gravity of his actions now. I mean, we certainly feel bad for Nolan, but don’t forgive him for killing the whales and, if anything, are left more confronted by the feeling that Nolan should meet his fate and we’re not so sorry when he does. There ain’t nobody hoping Captain Nolan vanquishes the whale and survives in the end unlike in Jaws when you’re thrilled Brody is victorious.

Value rating: 2 scratching nails on a blackboard (the sentiment is there)

As a person who lives in Canada, I gotta say, I’m loving the depiction of Canadian style. We’re talking pastel green women’s flight suits with fingerless gloves, acid washed loose denim overalls, askew fishermen’s toques with leather jackets, beautiful cable-knit sweaters and front-zip wetsuits (??).

Also, as a person who lives in Canada, I gotta say, when that cold weather hits, you will find us (me specifically) in the same oversized sweater, every pair of pants I own, an enormous parka and a hat, scarf, hood combo that only leaves my eyes exposed every single day until the heat comes back and you remember what it feels like to be warm again. There’s no elegant draping of scarves or coats here.

Style check rating: 5 tinted eyeglasses

The whale…commits…suicide?!?!? After killing Captain Nolan (spoiler alert), the whale, with its business officially handled, swims underneath the arctic ice, effectively drowning itself because, and I’m editorializing here, he has nothing left to live for.

I mean, woof. That’ll do it.

It ‘Sploded rating: 3 yellow barrels (this is a legitimately insane way for the orca to die)

Before you’re going to go to Marineland or SeaWorld and then you just don’t go.

People are real quick to cast this movie off as a ripoff. Upfront Orca seems to have the trappings of a Jaws knockoff, but the impulse feels akin to reading the headline and then spouting off like you know what you’re talking about. It’s a real mixed marketing message.

Orca carves out a unique space with its sympathetic take on its beast and, much like orcas in the wild, is an opportunistic hunter, taking advantage of the opening Jaws created and snapping up the available audience primed for this movie. This movie is worth your time and a reevaluation on the whole. Again, Justice for Orca!

Verdict rating: 6 wrongfully killed tiger sharks!!!

Marineworld must have truly been high on its own supply to not realize that footage of their darling captive whales was going to be used in a movie about how the bad people were capturing whales and then everyone dies. As the kids say, Orca walked so Blackfish could run.

Also check out Namu the Killer Whale featuring Namu, the first healthy whale in captivity who died shortly after this film from, ironically, drowning, and Free Willy which is a much more uplifting whale movie and also that Michael Jackson song still slaps.

Up next: The terrifying shadow of Grizzly.

For a complete list of The Plagiarist movies, swim here.

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