“Why do you think he sank the other boats and not yours? He deliberately left you your boat because he wants to fight you on the sea…”
Director: Michael Anderson
Starring: Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, Peter Hooten, Robert Carradine, Bo Derek, Keenan Wynn, Scott Walker
Screenplay: Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati
Synopsis: Near a fishing village in Newfoundland, marine biologist Dr Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling) is diving to check the equipment with which she is recording the songs of a pod of orcas when an enormous great white shark appears. Hurriedly, she conceals herself in a crevice, but in doing so she dislodges a rock that falls to the ocean floor, the impact attracting the shark. Up above, a fisherman called Nolan (Richard Harris) and his crew, Novak (Keenan Wynn) and Paul (Peter Hooten), and Paul’s girlfriend Annie (Bo Derek), are hunting for a great white shark, hoping to catch one alive to sell to an aquarium. They spot the fin of the one circling Rachel and head towards it, Nolan arming himself with a tranquiliser-tipped harpoon. Rachel’s assistant, Ken (Robert Carradine), who is nearby in an outboard dingy, waves his arms frantically, trying to alert the crew of the Bumpo to Rachel’s presence, and then cuts across the bow of the boat. Nolan’s shot goes wide. Rachel surfaces, and Ken hauls her into the dingy, which draws near to the boat. Nolan and Paul begin to abuse them for ruining their chance at the shark, but even as they speak the shark circles back. Rachel climbs onto the Bumpo, while Ken follows in the dingy. However, its motor stalls, and as Ken is trying to fix it he overbalances into the water. As he struggles to get back to the boat, the shark closes in on him – until suddenly, there is a thrashing in the water and the shark is thrown skywards, crashing back into the water as it dies…. As Nolan stares in disbelief, Rachel comments that only one creature is powerful enough to do something like that: a killer whale… At the local university, Rachel lectures her students about the orca: its intelligence, its family life, its communication, and its instinct for vengeance. She notices that Nolan has begun to attend her classes, and when she finds him netting off a rocky cove to use as a holding pen, she realizes why. Angrily, she tries to talk Nolan out of his plan to catch an orca, expressing her fear that he will kill any number of them before he succeeds in catching one, but he is not to be dissuaded. However, the attempted capture of an orca goes tragically wrong when Nolan’s harpoon, only nicking the dorsal fin of the male of a pair, strikes deeply into the female, and the distressed animal, screaming in pain, collides with the propeller of the boat and is critically injured. Nolan and his crew succeed in throwing tow-lines about the female, and winch it above the deck – only to recoil in horrified disbelief as the dying animal miscarries its calf… As the Bumpo heads for shore, it is suddenly shaken by the force of a tremendous collision. The crew is sent tumbling to the floor, with Annie crying out from the pain of a broken foot. The bewildered Nolan points at the charts, arguing that there is nothing out there they could have hit – only for Paul to suggest that maybe something out there hit them. After a second crashing blow, Novak warns Nolan that one more such hit will sink the boat. Nolan runs outside and trains a spotlight on the water where, sure enough, he finds that the male orca has followed them. At that moment, Paul discovers that the female is still alive. Nolan orders her cut down, but the fouling of the winch means that Novak must climb out onto the boom to do it. As he releases the female, Novak is left exposed – and the next instant, the male orca leaps into the air and drags Novak down into the water. As Nolan stares after his shipmate in horror and rage, the male orca lifts its head out of the water, directing one long, baleful stare at the fisherman before vanishing into the darkness…
Comments: One of the golden rules of exploitation film-making is always to include a scene that no-one who sees your film ever forgets. When Orca first played TV here it was, for reasons that escape me at this distance – never mind what distance! – the film that everyone was planning on watching. The next day, my school was full to overflowing with distressed adolescent girls thoroughly traumatised by the scene of Mrs Orca’s miscarriage. I’m willing to bet that none of them have ever forgotten that scene. In fact, I’d bet that no-one who has seen Orca has ever forgotten that scene. On that level, this film is a great success. On most others, well…
It isn’t quite fair to call Orca a Jaws rip-off. Rather, it’s a Jaws cash-in, a film that would never have been made if Jaws hadn’t been such a smashing success. That being the case, it is not much of a surprise to find Dino De Laurentiis lurking behind it. Clearly not having learnt his lesson from the debacle of King Kong the previous year, Dino here tries yet again to outdo his inspiration, and yet again produces a film that falls foul of its combination of awful characterisation, intermittent nastiness, and sheer idiocy. Orca is a failure, all right – but to be fair, it fails in so many unexpected ways that it ends up being much more entertaining than it has any right to be. And besides—
You know, I’m very often accused of thinking about films too much, and I guess right now I can only plead guilty as charged; because while pondering Orca this time around, a thought suddenly occurred to me that made me look at this ridiculous exercise in o’erweening ambition in a whole new light.
I was, I suppose, doing for the killer animal film what I’m still in the process of doing for the disaster movie, that is, making a comprehensive list of such films, distinguishing between genuine killer animal films and films that simply have a killer animal in them, and trying to decide just what was the first true killer animal film (for the record, I think it’s The Naked Jungle, which I’ll get around to presently); and all of a sudden it dawned on me that in the better than six-decade history of the killer animal film, Orca is the only one to ask the viewer to side with the animal…or at the very least, to see the situation from the animal’s point of view.
And that, of course, is why Orca’s tragedy is what it is. It has to be something so terrible, and yet so universal, that it is capable of winning the sympathy even of so-called “normal” people: people, that is, who don’t automatically side with the animal anyway; who don’t cry when Jaws die; and who haven’t co-opted Michael Moriarty’s manic cry from Q: The Winged Serpent – “Aaaah-ha-ha! Eat ’em! Eat ’em!” – and applied it to every killer animal film they’ve watched over the past twenty years or so.
Not that I know anyone like that.
And then, hard on the heels of that thought, there came the horrid realisation that I was no longer capable of treating this shameless piece of exploitation with the contempt that it otherwise deserves…
Thanks a lot, brain.
Mind you, it’s a pretty sad commentary on Homo sapiens that the makers of Orca evidently felt that they needed to rub the viewer’s nose in the butchering of Mrs Orca, and her miscarriage, and her agonisingly protracted death, in order to get the desired response; and that even then, they were compelled to shore up the horror with a ludicrous serving of anthropomorphism that insults the orca even more than it insults the audience. Anthropomorphism flatters no animal, of course, but least of all when the “human” characteristics that it and we are supposed to share are among the ones we should be most ashamed of. In this case, at least according to Dr Rachel Bedford – and she should know! she’s a whale biologist! – what we share with the orca is neither the creature’s intelligence, nor its capacity for gentleness, nor its parenting skills, but rather its “profound instinct for vengeance”.
Hmm… You know, if Dr Bedford wasn’t a whale biologist! – I’d be tempted to suggest that she’s talking out of her skinny rear end.
(And I say “skinny” advisedly: Charlotte Rampling’s diamond-cut features and skeletal frame made her a natural as a model, but if she isn’t photographed carefully she can look positively cadaverous, and does for much of this film. Amusingly, although not inappropriately, Ted Moore seems to have devoted most of his skill to photographing the orcas attractively.)
Typically, the screenplay here simply lays sweeping assertion upon sweeping assertion in order to talk up the orca, rather than presenting any of the rich accumulated real-life data demonstrating the animal’s intelligence, including its problem-solving abilities – which, given the remarkable grasp of physics, engineering, architecture and cause-and-effect that Orca himself will later demonstrate, seems like a lost opportunity. It also makes Dr Bedford sound like a complete loon, and not for the last time. Just count how many times over the course of the film she contradicts herself and/or changes stance about something. It makes for a fine drinking-game, I can tell you. I think she’s supposed to an audience-surrogate, torn between sympathy for Orca and horror at his actions; but she comes off instead like a dithery idiot, which is hardly fair on the audience.
“Nolan, I’m warning you, if you persist in this, your house will fall over, your assistant will get her leg bitten off, and an oil refinery will blow up! I know what I’m talking about – I’m a whale biologist!”
But anyway, it isn’t in the classroom that we first meet Dr Bedford, but under the sea, under the sea… She is checking the equipment with which she is recording orca song when a great white shark looms up. And here, I guess, it’s time to share the guilt: the shark footage for Orca was shot in Australia by, inevitably, Ron Taylor; and as at one point the shark and the diver do seem to be in the same shot, I’m going to guess that’s Valerie Taylor standing in for Charlotte Rampling here, although she isn’t credited.
Upon seeing the shark, Val, I mean Rachel, quite sensibly ducks into a crevice, but in trying to reinforce the opening with some loose rock she knocks one onto the seabed – the vibration from which has the odd effect of drawing the shark to the crevice, rather than to the rock.
Meanwhile, up above, our human protagonist, or anti-hero, or whatever you want to call him, Nolan, is giving us a demonstration of the level of his intelligence with the revelation that he’s trying to catch a great white shark in order to sell it to an aquarium. He’s lining up this specimen (which is now at the surface for some reason) with a dope-loaded harpoon when Ken, Rachel’s assistant, who’s bobbing around nearby in an outboard-powered dinghy, intervenes and spoils Nolan’s shot. Rachel then breaks the surface, and Ken hauls her into the dinghy before drawing near Nolan’s boat, the Bumpo.
(Shouldn’t it be the Bumppo? Still, given the treatment dished out to that boat by Orca over the course of the film, perhaps the name was intended less as a literary allusion and more as a sick joke.)
Nolan, furious over having his shot spoiled, comes charging up, only to stop dead with his mouth hanging open and a stunned, Why – you’re a girl! expression on his face. Recovering, he demands, “Do you know how much an aquarium would pay for a great white shark?”
“Hello, Carcharodon carcharias here! You might remember me from Jaws. I’m here to tell you about an exciting new motion picture from Dino de Laurentiis…”
Uh, nothing? Because they don’t live in captivity? Oh, sorry, wrong answer. It’s, Ten thousand dollars a foot. Apparently this film takes place in a parallel universe where aquaria have a quarter of a million dollars just lying around, plus lots of big empty tanks. By the way, I’m sure I need hardly mention that the Bumpo is not in the least fitted out for capturing and transporting such an animal, a venture which Nolan & Co. appear to be undertaking entirely on spec.
Then the shark’s fin cuts the water again. This is pointed out by Annie (played by a pre-10 Bo Derek), who’s up in the crow’s nest, and for some reason Rachel climbs up into the Bumpo while Ken follows in the dinghy. What, they couldn’t just tie it to the boat? Of course not, because then the outboard couldn’t stall, and Ken, while fiddling with it, couldn’t do an embarrassing pratfall into the water and re-surface a good twenty feet from the dinghy. As you do.
Hilariously, Ken turns out to be the kind of person who has to be reminded that there is a great white shark that’s twenty-five feet if it’s a yard! (the same length – surprise! – as the one in Jaws) in his vicinity. Rachel shouts at him, “Ken, get back in the boat!”, which apparently he isn’t capable of thinking of for himself. This triggers the usual suspenseful [sic.] dash, as the shark closes in on the puny splashing human; only this time it concludes, shall we say, unexpectedly, as an orca appears from nowhere and saves said puny human by ramming the shark, which goes flying into the air, then crashes down to a twitchy death as its blood pours into the water.
Take that, Steven Spielberg!
“Jesus, what did that?” demands Nolan numbly, setting up Rachel’s response: “There’s only one creature in the world that could have done that—[dramatic pause]—a killer whale…”
And this in turn is the cue for Rachel’s sickly emotive lecture to the audience her students about how the orca is the wonderfullest animal in the whole wide world – during which she refers to them as Orca orcinus, when in fact their correct designation is Orcinus orca. How on earth did they stuff that up!?
It is also here that we suffer through the first of Charlotte Rampling’s obviously-imposed-in-post-production voiceovers, this one trying (and failing) to justify the embarrassingly unconvincing relationship that subsequently develops between Rachel and Nolan.
We’re told that, believe it or not, his mixture of “ignorance” and “curiosity” made him seem, “Vulnerable; even attractive.” However, even Rachel herself can’t swallow this, it seems, as over the barfing noises coming from the audience we can just hear her add, “Either that, or I’d been in Newfoundland for too long.”
Way, way too long.
But it turns out that Rachel herself isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, though, because although Nolan is a professional fisherman who she met while he was trying to capture a great white shark, it isn’t until he starts building a holding pen that it dawns on her that he might have reasons for pumping her for information about orcas besides an admiration for their apparent mastery of Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War.
There are, of course, any number of cogent arguments to be made against keeping orcas in captivity (although how many of them might operate on a fisherman is moot, I guess), but instead of making any of them Rachel just pours on the mush again and, when that fails, offers to sleep with Nolan if that’s what it takes to change his mind. Evidently Nolan hasn’t been in Newfoundland quite long enough, however, and Dr Bedford’s overly-prominent bones remain unjumped.
Joyous frolicking? This can only mean one thing…
And this, alas, brings us to Orca’s most notorious sequence – which does at least start by offering solid support for the film’s orcas are smarter than humans thesis, as we find Annie filling the harpoon’s drug compartment:
Annie: “How many cc-s of dope in the harpoon?”
Nolan: “Well…if the whale is twice the size of the shark, therefore we use twice as much.”
Annie then informs Nolan that orcas are monogamous. It turns out that he doesn’t know what that word means, and not just in the usual masculine way, so Annie spells it out for him (and, presumably, the Idiot Viewer), before fretting that they might be, “Busting up a happy family.” Uh, if you’re worried about that, luvvie, what exactly are you doing on board? And why were you grinning inanely through the loading of the harpoon?
We get one of the film’s numerous early sequences of joyously frolicking orcas here. This, like almost everything else, is laid on far too thick – although to be fair, there is some lovely footage here, backed by an appropriately pastoral score from Ennio Morricone; and these were the days before twenty-four hour documentary channels made everything commonplace; so perhaps we can excuse this particular overindulgence.
Of course, this particular piece of joyous frolicking is the cue for everything to go horribly, horribly wrong. Nolan fires off his tranquiliser-harpoon, which nicks the fin of Orca and flies through to impale Mrs Orca, who screams. Annie here wails that Nolan hit the female instead of the male, but since he can’t tell the sexes apart anyway (his ignorance really is impressive), I don’t suppose he cares. As Orca himself roars in protest, Mrs Orca runs into the boat’s propeller and slashes herself open – an act interpreted for us by Annie as, “She’s trying to kill herself!”, rather than as a terrified animal in agony becoming disorientated and injuring herself even more, which is quite distressing enough, thank you. As her blood pours into the water, Nolan and the others get tow-ropes around Mrs Orca and haul her up and over the deck, upon which—
Or anyone else.
Now, revolting as all this is, I am reasonably confident that it was all faked – even the shark “death”, in which the final “convulsions” of the dying animal are actually briefly cut-in normal feeding motions. Prior to that, the attack upon the great white features some hilariously obvious model work, the likes of which would not grace motion picture screens again until Jaws: The Revenge (a film that shares with Orca a great deal more than just the standard of its model work, of course).
During both the shark’s death and Mrs Orca’s encounter with the propeller, there is plenty of blood in the water, but it can be seen that neither animal is actually injured. The harpoon-nick in Orca’s fin, which operates rather like the rope-burn on Clint Eastwood’s throat in Hang ’Em High, makes for a nice visual indicator, but also draws attention to the substitution of Orca’s stand-in: the real animal playing Orca has a drooping fin, which is a pathological condition common amongst orcas kept in captivity.
Most reassuringly of all, however (and without wanting to get into the debate about orca classification), Orca and Mrs Orca both have the distinctive “saddle-patch” behind their dorsal fins, while their animatronic stand-ins are classic black-and-white. So, I’m prepared to give the film the benefit of the doubt. The usual caveat applies, however: if anyone knows different – shut the hell up.
A completely freaked-out Nolan turns on the boat’s fire-hose and washes the aborted foetus off the deck and into the water. Novak finally intervenes in this, taking the hose out of Nolan’s hands and telling him it’s all over with a degree of unconcern that, in this universe, bodes very, very ill for him. The Bumpo turns for shore, Mrs Orca still dangling from its boom, and is suddenly violently shaken by a series of collisions. One knocks Annie off the galley steps, and she cries out in pain and clutches her leg.
And that’s what you get for dressing up like Robert Shaw, ya big dummy.
Upstairs, the men grab their charts and try to figure out what they hit. It is Paul upon whom the light dawns. Nolan goes charging up on deck and shines a spotlight on the water. Sure enough, Orca has followed them. An enraged Nolan grabs his rifle and tries to line up a shot, but Orca hits the boat again and sends his adversary flying.
At this point we make the horrifying discovery that Mrs Orca is still alive. At the same moment, Novak emerges from the engine-room to report on the boat’s damage. Nolan orders Mrs Orca cut down, an act which requires Novak to climb up and out onto the end of the boom. The loss of the animal’s weight causes the Bumpo to lurch violently, and Novak almost falls. He saves himself with a desperate clutch at the boom, however, and assures Nolan that he is fine.
And right on cue, Orca leaps from the water, seizes Novak in his jaws, and drags him down to his death, as Nolan pays his shipmate the tribute of yelling his name in slow motion.
Now— The killing of the great white shark was in broad daylight, so I guess we can forgive them for not being able to disguise the model work. Novak’s death, however, plays out at night; yet even so, at the last minute there’s the substitution of a mannequin so obvious, it delights me to think (this film having Italian backing, and all) that it was the work of the same people responsible for Zombi Holocaust. At least this one’s arm doesn’t snap off at an inconvenient moment.
(Actually, this film is very much like Zombi Holocaust: there’s one scene I can’t watch, but otherwise, it’s a hoot!)
Orca lifts his head from the water and stares up at Nolan, who likewise stares down at him. We get the second of the film’s visual motifs here, a would-be arty shot that gives us a close-up of Orca’s eye with Nolan reflected in it. Then, with a flick of his tail, Orca vanishes into the night.
And from this point onwards, the film is basically Death Wish VI: The Orcaning.
It’s called art, you philistines!
It’s a curious thing, you know: if this were a normal vigilante movie, I’d probably be sitting here tut-tutting and shaking my head over the perverted morality of it all; but substitute an orca for Charles Bronson, and it turns out I can be just as bloodthirsty as the worst of them. Still— Perhaps the difference here is that most normal vigilante movies, either explicitly or implicitly (and despite what the novels they are based on might say to the contrary), tend to suggest that vigilantism is a perfectly sane and logical thing to do – and fun, besides; whereas Orca makes it clear that poor Orca has been driven completely out of his mind.
We next see Orca nudging Mrs Orca’s still-bleeding body through the water, as the rest of the pod forms a kind of guard of honour. I’m rather embarrassed to admit it, but the combination here of the visuals with whale song and Ennio Morricone’s score makes me get all weepy. At the last, Orca pushes Mrs Orca’s body up onto a rocky shore. We find it there the next morning, Rachel Bedford sitting beside it and reading to it (!?); and at this point we realise that the shore is in the same bay in which the Bumpo is anchored.
Nolan, needless to say, is less than thrilled with the situation. He makes his way down onto the shore, and bizarrely, chooses to greet Rachel with a tentative smile, as if he thinks she might be pleased to see him. He is disabused when he is forced to listen to another of her loopy lectures.
However, our discomfort in Rachel’s battiness is soon swept away by our excruciating embarrassment on behalf of another character: Jacob Umilak, the film’s obligatory Token Native who is Wise In The Ways Of Nature; who enters with the thoroughly tone-setting line, “She speak you the truth!”; and who, like all good indigenous folk, exists only to pop up at significant moments and babble about his ancestors, before getting himself killed dabbling in Whitey’s business. “She know it from the university; I know it from my ancestors,” Umilak adds, going on to warn Nolan of Orca’s vengeance.
Nolan playing with his nuts.
Nolan chuckles dismissively and turns away. Rachel calls after him, “He saw you, Nolan! He saw you on the deck of the boat!” How the hell would she know? Umilak tells Nolan that he’d better stay out of Orca’s territory. Caught between these two evident nutters, Nolan sensibly chooses to placate them by agreeing to heed their warnings, and wanders off. We next see him at a memorial service for Novak, which attended by himself and Paul and no-one else. Nice, friendly community, this South Harbour. Afterwards, Nolan asks the priest if a man can sin against an animal, and receives the comforting news that you can sin against anything, “Even a blade of grass!”
(Coming soon! – Death Wish VII: The Bladening. They’ll never mow again…)
Down on the docks, Nolan is confronted by Al Swain, head of the local fisherman’s union, who tells him the Bumpo is being worked on, and oh-so-casually inquires into Nolan’s further plans. Nolan tells him that he’s given up on trying to capture an orca, and Swain is pleased, commenting that some of the local are, “Superstitious about that sort of thing”, and that an orca hanging around will scare off the schools of fish and damage the local economy. I don’t really see what the first point has to do with the second, but then, I’m not an Italian screenwriter.
Nolan and Paul go to inspect the Bumpo, as a nicked fin cuts through the waters nearby. The next moment, Orca’s campaign of vengeance begins in earnest as he slams into a number of the amazingly fragile boats tied up around the harbour and sinks them. The Bumpo, however, he does not touch. As the locals gather to inspect the damage, Nolan climbs up the Bumpo’s rigging, from where he sees a familiar nick heading out to sea…
And from this point onwards, Orca – as well as Orca – completely loses it. Honestly, there’s no point in trying to make sense out of anything that happens during the rest of this film, so just sit back and enjoy the idiotic ride, as our human characters behave in a way that makes Orca seem quite sane by comparison.
“And you’re sure this film will make me a star? Body-painting, horny orangutans, the works?”
Nolan arranges to have Mrs Orca buried, and is overseeing the operation when Rachel shows up to give him a copy of a book called Whales And Dolphins In Science And Mythology. It probably goes without saying that through the rest of the film, we shall hear a great deal about the mythology and very little about the science. Nolan tells Rachel that after the burial, he’ll be holding a wake – typical Irish; any excuse for a piss-up (said the Australian) – and invites her to come.
They are interrupted by Swain, who tells Nolan that the Bumpo will be ready as soon as possible, and intimates that he’d better get the hell out of Dodge. Nolan retorts that he has no intention of leaving, but waves aside Swain’s assumption that he’s staying to kill Orca, saying that it’s just because he’s paid a month’s rent on the house he, Paul and Annie are living in; and that, besides, Annie has a broken foot. Anyway, Nolan adds, the orca will certainly move on of his own volition soon enough. Swain reveals that, on top of the boat sinkings, the fish have gone; and that a nicked fin was just spotted nearby. “Stationary. Just waiting.”
Nolan takes himself off to the point where Orca was spotted, and we get a scene both drawn out past all necessity – stare-nothing-turn-splashing noise-turn-stare-nothing-turn-splashing noise – and another attempt at “art”, as the mise-en-scène is bathed in red light from a nearby beacon. (Rather like the big attack scene in Tentacoli, come to think of it. Ah, these Italians…) Eventually, Orca shows himself; and as he and Nolan glare at one another, we get more of the eyeball business, as well as two not-quite-subliminal-enough flashes, the first of Mrs Orca’s miscarriage (yeah, thanks), the second of a car crashing.
Hmm… More art. This can’t be good.
The next morning, Swain calls a meeting to announce that “The Authorities” have declared themselves unable to help with the orca problem. This is, of course, bullshit. At the time of this film, not only was there no protection of orcas, but the killing of any animal that interfered with commercial fishing stocks was openly encouraged by government. However, this is hardly the film’s only departure from reality, so let’s move on.
Orca does a slow burn.
We get our first glimpse of Nolan’s house here, which is balanced precariously over the water on some alarmingly fragile-looking supports, which I’m sure won’t turn out to have any significance over the course of the film. Nolan emerges to find Umilak on his balcony, who tells him that the fishermen are angry at Nolan’s refusal to kill Orca and his supposed cowardice. Nolan replies that he has his reasons for refraining, which Umilak accepts on the grounds that he sees fear in Nolan’s face, but not of anything alive: “It is of a spirit, I think.” Well, obviously. Nevertheless, Umilak warns Nolan that there might be nasty consequences if he doesn’t do as the men want. He then reflects on what his ancestors would have done, a ceremony involving bird livers and “piss-water”, before wandering off.
Back inside, Nolan flicks through Rachel’s book and suddenly gets a brain[sic.]wave. He rushes into Paul’s room to communicate it to him, and we get a would-be comic scene with the discovery of Paul and Annie in bed together, and the revelation of Annie’s full-length leg cast.
For a broken foot? Oh, well. I’m sure it won’t turn out to have any significance over the course of the film.
Next thing we know, Nolan is fashioning a “scare-Nolan”, which he sets up on the end of the jetty with the flashing red beacon. Rachel shows up for no reason, and for once she and I are on the same page: “It’s a pretty good likeness,” she comments wryly of Nolan’s dummy-double. Nolan explains that he hopes the dummy will draw Orca out; and that although at first he intended to shoot and kill the animal, now—
“He won’t show,” interrupts Ms Killjoy, adding that the reason Orca sank all the boats but Nolan’s means he wants a showdown on the open water. Nolan says he won’t do that; and that, furthermore, he intends to apologise to Orca, in the hope that he’ll be a big enough ma—uh, cetacean to forgive him; and that should be that.
EEE-vil joyous frolicking!!
But while Nolan waits in his tent for Orca to show up, and Rachel waits with him, Orca himself is busy near the town. Hold onto your hats, folks, because we’re about to plunge head-first into Deep Blue Sea territory, as our current screenwriters similarly prove themselves completely unable to distinguish between intelligence and knowledge, perhaps due to their lack of experience with either. I must say, though, I find it all a lot less irritating here than I do in the later film, possibly because Charlotte Rampling never makes me look at her underwear.
So, in rapid succession, we have Orca (i) swimming around a dock and inspecting its design and fittings, before (ii) leaping out of the water to sever a series of pipes, which (iii) sends petrol, presumably, flooding over the docks, while Orca (iv) knocks into the dock’s pylons, which (v) shakes a wooden structure sitting near the dock, in which there just happens to be (vi) a lit oil-lamp, which falls over and smashes, (vii) igniting the spilled petrol and (viii) setting off a chain reaction that runs up the hill behind the dock, where there just happens to be (ix) an oil refinery.
Now, if this were a normal vigilante film, or even a normal action film, we’d no doubt have our protagonist doing a badass slow motion walk towards the camera right about now, as a series of explosions erupted in the background; but being as this is about an orca, and all, what we get instead is Orca joyously frolicking in the water in front of the explosions, in a manner similar – very, very similar – to the way he joyously frolicked with Mrs Orca at the beginning of the film. Meanwhile, the fire throws all sorts of red and orange and yellow lights across the water. It’s really rather pretty, in a horribly violent sort of way.
And while this is going on, back in tent city Nolan is explaining that subliminal flash we saw earlier, telling Rachel that he knows just how Orca feels, because it happened to him too: his pregnant wife was driving to the hospital when she was hit by a drunk driver and killed.
“Nolan? Is that you? Or is a thirty-five foot, three-ton orca?”
While this looks, and may be, another example of the film laying it on with a shovel, putting Orca’s situation in entirely human terms so that the (apparently slightly retarded) audience can grasp it, it’s actually a bit more than that. What we have here is an attempt to excuse Nolan’s subsequent refusal to come out and fight like a whale, despite Orca’s rather explicit invitations to do so, or even to kill the animal when he has the chance.
Speaking of which, Nolan’s recitation of his own tragedy is rather startlingly interrupted by half of South Harbour blowing up. Nolan and Rachel rush out to see what’s happening, ending up on the jetty where stands the dummy-Nolan. The other dummy-Nolan. And of course, now Orca shows himself, leaping up and landing so as to send a wave splashing over Nolan himself.
The next morning finds the men of South Harbour working on the Bumpo with redoubled enthusiasm. That night, Nolan gets an anonymous phone-call telling him that the boat ready, and that he’d better sail with the tide and kill the orca, or else. Nolan obediently springs into action, sending Paul to get their truck filled (do note here the framed photograph of a topless female diver: it’s not Auretta Gay, is it – !?), then phones Rachel to tell her that he’s going to do what Orca wants.
And after having spent the whole film to this point smirking at Orca’s obvious control of the situation, and shaking her head piteously over Nolan’s pathetic human behaviour, not to mention lecturing us about the whale’s human-like thought processes (or vice-versa), now she does a backflip and tells Nolan they don’t know what Orca wants. Or if they do know, that they shouldn’t give it to him; that he’s crazed with grief and needs to be protected against himself; and that in any case, Nolan owes more to Orca than he does to the villagers (who’ve just had their fishing stocks chased away, their boats sunk and their oil refinery blown up, but never mind). This argument finally sways Nolan, and he agrees not to go out after all.
So, folks, we can blame what happens next entirely on Dr Rachel Bedford.
I wonder if he’s insured for Act of Orca?
At the service station, Paul is refused petrol, in a way that makes it clear that Nolan and his crew will be leaving by sea. Umilak, lurking in the darkness near the service station just in case one of Nolan’s crew shows up, because of course he has nothing better to do, gives Paul a message for Nolan: “Tell him he must accept with his mind what he already knows in his heart.” Miraculously, he manages to refrain from dragging his ancestors into it.
Meanwhile, Nolan is trying to reassure an inexplicably jittery Annie, who obviously has highly refined animal instincts to go along with her deer-in-headlights expression. Of course, Nolan doesn’t listen to her forebodings, but leaves her alone in the house while he goes out to do something in the garage.
And wouldn’t you know it? – there’s Orca, swimming amongst the house’s frighteningly slender supports.
It takes a lot to beat Orca blowing up an oil refinery, but the film manages it in this sickly hilarious sequence. First, a prescient Annie gets all panicky, before her wine-glass shatters, presumably because of Orca’s super-sonic-sonar-radar. The next instant, the house starts to shudder as Orca snaps a few of the supports. Annie shrieks for Nolan and tries to haul herself up on her crutches. Nolan comes rushing in just as a few more supports go, and the house starts to slump into the water. Annie is tossed down the sloping floor and, because of her cast, can’t get up. Just then, Paul shows up. The house lurches again, and Annie is nearly thrown out of it through a collapsed wall, but she manages to grab on and save herself…except that her legs are jutting out over the water…
Nolan and Paul grab some netting and throw it down to her, meaning to haul her back up. Annie transfers her grip, but as the others begin to pull her up, Orca makes his move. Oddly, he completely ignores Annie’s unguarded right leg, and chomps off the one with the cast on it. I guess he felt he wasn’t getting enough fibre, considering his recent high-fat human-based diet.
So I guess that would make her a 9.5?
(According to Leonard Maltin, I should be ashamed of myself: the critic once summed up Orca sniffily as a film, “…for people whose idea of entertainment is watching Bo Derek getting her leg bitten off.” Alas, that makes me laugh, too!)
As the paramedics take Annie away, a shattered Nolan stares out over the water, where Orca is doing some rather tactless joyous frolicking. Well, that’s enough for Nolan. He sets out in the Bumpo first thing in the morning with a rag-tag crew, most of whom have no business being there, and whose assembly I like to imagine resembling that which preceded a certain trip to Shelbyville:
Why is Rachel there? To look after Nolan and/or Orca, if she can ever make up her mind which. And why is Ken there? Because alone on the high seas with Richard Harris is no place for a woman. And why is Paul there? Because Umilak didn’t want to come on his own.
Honestly, these people might as well have “Orca-chow” tattooed on their foreheads.
We get Rachel’s most ludicrous voiceover here, which is saying something. She shares with her feelings of guilt over “filling Nolan’s head with romantic notions” about the orca being capable not only of profound grief, which she actually believes, but also of, “Calculated and vindictive action – which I found hard to believe despite all that had happened.”
This, mind you, from a woman who started out by telling us that an orca’s most distinguishing characteristics were its intelligence and its profound instinct for vengeance. She then justifies coming along for the ride by explaining that she hopes to see something that will allow her to put a different construction on Orca’s behavior. Yeah, good luck with that, sister. Strangely, Rachel then describes Orca’s behavior as “wildly unpredictable”. You could have fooled me.
Nolan heads the boat for the scene of Mrs Orca’s butchering, while Rachel and Ken set up their sound-recording equipment. Presumably they want to learn the cetacean for, “Hello. My name is Orca. You killed my wife. Prepare to die.”
People usually look happier when Richard Harris is leaving.
The Bumpo reaching its destination is signalled by Orca slamming it from underneath. Paul grabs a rifle, but Nolan calls him back, insisting that he, and he alone, will fight the creature. He produces three sticks of dynamite and heads out on deck.
Seeing him, Rachel – who in a few minutes will be screaming at Nolan to shoot the orca – cries out, “You can’t let off dynamite!” and starts struggling with Nolan for the lit bundle. Orca bumps the boat again, and the bomb goes flying. Rachel manages to scramble across the deck and toss it overboard – so it’s okay for her to let off dynamite? – and it blows up a safe distance from the boat and, presumably, from Orca.
The film’s dumbest fake scare follows. For some reason – I seem to be saying that a lot, don’t I? – this dynamite interlude makes Rachel throw up, and she staggers over to the side of the boat. We hear dramatic chords, see Orca surfacing, get a POV shot of Rachel leaning forward while Nolan snaps, “Will you get your head in?”, more surfacing, more leaning, and Nolan dragging Rachel back as Paul cries out from the crow’s nest, “Jesus, here he comes!!”—
And Orca breaks the surface a good thirty yards from the boat.
Phew! That was…too close!
After a few tense moments of submerging, Orca surfaces. Nolan raises his rifle – but lowers it again as he stares at the animal, which is waving its tail and its fins at him (standard marine park behavior, in other words), an action that Nolan interprets as a demand that they follow him. And so they do.
And as Umilak turns the boat, Ken wanders over to the side, stands on the railings, holds the ropes, and leans out right over the water…and then has the gall to look surprised when Orca jumps up and pulls him in.
“My heart will go oo-oo–OOWWWWWW!!!!“
“Ken!” exclaims Rachel, her expression suggesting that she’s just witnessed a social faux-pas at an afternoon tea-party.
Anyway, this slight mishap notwithstanding, they continue on following Orca where’er he might lead. That night, Rachel and Nolan lie below decks, and I can only marvel at the Bumpo’s heating system, as Nolan is wearing no more than a scungy undershirt, and Rachel the thinnest of sleeveless tops. The two listen to Orca’s song, which Nolan helpfully translates for the RRV* as, “You are me. I’m you. You are my drunk driver.”
(*Representative Retarded Viewer)
Rachel takes the helm from Paul, who informs us that they’ve entered the Gulf of St Lawrence, while the next morning finds them passing through the Strait of Bell Isle and into open waters and towards the coast of Labrador. Umilak points out that polar ice will crush the Bumpo, but Nolan replies that it will disadvantage Orca, too, as he will have trouble breathing; concluding from this that Orca isn’t as smart as he thought.
Talk about Famous Last Words.
As they journey on, Paul starts to crack. Nolan, conversely, is all zen and what-will-be-will-be. Umilak pops in to let everyone know that they don’t have enough fuel to get back to port. (The implication is that Orca has calculated this!) Paul has another spack, but Nolan points out that they – emphasis on they – can SOS a nearby radar station, when the time comes, and call for a helicopter lift.
And they journey on some more, until in the darkness Orca nearly leads them straight into an ice-wall. An increasingly shaky Paul decides he’d better get the lifeboat ready – because a flimsy lifeboat would be much safer, amongst the ice-walls and bergs and homicidal orcas.
“Oh, honestly, Ken! I can’t take you anywhere, can I?”
Nolan, too, is finally starting to crack up, and Umilak has to intervene, sending Nolan to bed and promising to look after Paul. He does try to talk Paul down, but instead Paul stops where he is – clinging to the ropes and dangling over the lifeboat, which is dangling over the water – and I think even Representative Retarded Viewer can figure out what happens next.
Paul screams, Orca swims off with, I think, a leg in his jaws (again?), Nolan gapes, and Rachel, oddly – or perhaps not – seems much more upset that she was over Ken.
However, the film’s most horrifying scene is yet to come. Later, Nolan wanders downstairs to where Rachel is lying in her bunk, ruminating that all of this happened just because he wanted enough money to pay off his mortgages and debts, and go back to Ireland. “America never suited me,” he comments. Or, presumably, Canada.
It is here that we get the only moment in the film to challenge Mrs Orca’s miscarriage both for notoriety, and sheer disgust. “Come,” says Rachel, sitting up, “I’ll warm you.”
All together, now:
The next day, Nolan, who has already declared it to be “the” day, picks up the it’s-all-my-fault theme he was pursuing the night before by announcing abruptly, “He loved his family more than I loved mine,” Meaning – what, exactly? That Nolan didn’t react to the loss of his family by embarking on an insanely violent rampage and murdering a few random strangers? Shame on you, Nolan!
So why don’t you PUT SOME CLOTHES ON!?
Nolan then puts down his gun and picks up a harpoon, declaring that, “It’s going to be a fair fight. On equal terms.” Suddenly, Umilak, possibly feeling left out as the only person not to have had an obvious psychotic break so far, appears waving a rifle and demanding that they turn back. Nolan responds by looking mildly irritated. Rachel then bounces in with the news that there’s an iceberg heading towards them, against the current.
Umilak puts the rifle down – so much for that – and starts the engines, while Nolan and Rachel run out on deck to stare at the iceberg, which sure enough is being shoved towards them by Orca – and which appears to be seven-eighths above water. Hmm…
(A word on these scenes. Much of Orca was filmed on location in Newfoundland, but this climactic ice-bound sequence was filmed in Malta, with fake ice floating on some nice, warm water.)
As Umilak sends an SOS, Rachel brings the harpoon to Nolan, who mutters that Orca has to come up to breathe. He’s right, but I can only assume that Orca succumbs here to a suicidal impulse, or why would he not simply surface on the far side of the iceberg? Be that as it may, he does sit up right in front of Nolan, who throws the harpoon into him. Orca screams and swims off, leaving a bloody trail.
However, still running on momentum, the iceberg then plows into the side of the Bumpo, ripping it open. Nolan and Rachel stagger and fall, while Umilak, displaying a truly sucky sense of timing, as well as fulfilling his manifest destiny, emerges on deck just at the right moment to be crushed to death by falling Styrofoam.
Orca, meanwhile, has snapped off the shaft of the harpoon against the base of an iceberg, which makes me wonder (hope?) whether he’s re-thinking suicide.
Nature is hilariously cruel.
Nolan and Rachel throw their gear onto an ice sheet, and leap from the sinking Bumpo. Nearby, Orca bumps and breaks the ice. His targets run, but Orca tracks them easily from underneath. A game of cat-and-mouse begins, with Orca bumping and Nolan shooting, but neither getting the advantage.
Finally, Rachel and Nolan make it onto an ice shelf, but not to safety. As they are scrambling up a slope, Orca bumps into it, causing Nolan to tumble down and back onto an ice sheet, which Orca promptly tows away from the shelf. By the time Nolan regains his footing, he’s too far from the shelf to jump back. Rachel, however, throws him the rifle. Orca surfaces, Nolan swings around—and the two of them stop, staring at one another. We get yet another arty touch here, as we see Nolan raising the rifle reflected in Orca’s eye, matched with a reflection of a motionless Orca in Nolan’s eye.
“What in hell are you!?” bellows Nolan, lowering the rifle.
This Melville-esque touch seals Nolan’s fate, of course. Even as Ms Whale Lover shouts, “Jesus, shoot!” from the ice shelf, Orca leaps up and comes down on the edge of Nolan’s ice sheet, tipping it up, sending the rifle flying, and leaving Nolan sliding inexorably towards his adversary’s gaping jaws in a scene that no-one is ever going to convince me wasn’t the inspiration for the penguin scene in Futurama. However, Orca allows Nolan to slip into the water, which ought to kill him almost instantaneously, but doesn’t, seeing as how we’re in Malta, and all. Orca swims around and around Nolan, taunting him, until finally he scoops the doomed fisherman up on his tail and catapults him through the air – straight at the ice shelf.
(And a very fine mixture of obvious dummy-work, stuntperson looking nothing like Richard Harris, and Richard Harris we get here, too.)
Nolan was beginning to regret he’d insisted on a fair fight…
Nolan then slides down the ice and slips into the water, his arm flung wide in what I sincerely hope wasn’t intended to be a crucifixion-pose. Well, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say it was an intended tribute to Charlton Heston.
Rachel is staring tearfully after Nolan when Orca surfaces, having rid himself not only of the harpoon shaft but apparently his wound, too. She recoils, but Orca is sated.
Our final arty touch comes here, as we get the final close-up of Orca’s eye, the receding water making it look like he’s crying, too. He swims off then, possibly to kill himself, possibly to seek the orcan equivalent of a retreat, or possibly to embark on a new life as a career vigilante; rather like a cetacean Ethan Edwards, in fact; and as a helicopter appears on the horizon to rescue Rachel, we get not only the film’s closing theme, but an hilariously overwrought love song; one which, despite the Medveds’ jocularity on the subject, is clearly about Orca and Mrs Orca. I mean, come on – Rachel and Nolan!?
But why don’t you judge for yourself?
This would hardly be a proper killer animal film if it didn’t have a helicopter.