Orca - The Killer Whale


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"There may be moments when it's truly awful, but it's also strangely compelling."

An acknowledged attempt to go one further than Jaws, despite its star's denial of this, Orca also drags in elements of Moby Dick and the Jonah story as it pits man against whale and civilisation against nature in a morally ambiguous tale with mythical overtones. It is also, at heart, a lurid B-movie, and the different values of these approaches to cinema clash awkwardly as it unfolds. Ultimately, though, this adds to its curiosity value. There may be moments when it's truly awful, but it's also strangely compelling.

Central to the story, and easily its most sympathetic character, is a whale living peacefully with his pod until the day that a boat turns up and its crew brutally murder his pregnant partner. Leaving aside the unlikeliness of this (killer whales are not monogamous as the film claims and any female he lived with would likely be his mother, sister or niece; they're no more comfortable with incest than most humans are), he is understandably traumatised. Whales, like humans, have a profound instinct for revenge, we are told. So he follows the boat back to its harbour, where he sinks ships, eats careless sailors and, um, sets fire to things, all in attempt to draw the man responsible back out to sea.

Copy picture

That man is Nolan (Richard Harris, so devoted to the part that he almost killed himself doing his own stunts). He's drawn with more complexity than most characters in this situation, emotionally quite distraught over the death of the pregnant whale (as quite a few viewers will be), though we could do without the cheesy subplot telling us why. He sympathises with the survivor's desire to kill him, but he doesn't want to die. Still, the villagers, spoken for by token Native American character Umilak (Will Sampson), add to the pressure. They're too polite to actually offer him up as a sacrifice but it's clear that they hold him responsible for the whale's continued threat to their lives, homes and livelihoods.

The film also features Charlotte Rampling as a whale expert (introduced in a black rubber wetsuit, of course) and Bo-Derek as a fellow sailor, for once getting chewed more by the scenery than the reverse. Its orca stars are residents of water parks, hence the mysteriously crystal clear water around them in many scenes. For some reason they are voiced by whales of a completely different species, and there are also rubber whales whose authenticity the crew famously boasted about but which bob about like polystyrene in the surf, creating unintentionally hilarious moments just when the film is trying to be at its most sombre and meaningful.

What really drags the film down, but also gives it much of its appeal, is its script. Peppered with pseudo-insightful lines like, "He's a mammal, but with intelligence," it also features a spectacularly pretentious voiceover by Rampling; in attempting to add depth and dignity to events, it's likely to have the audience in stitches. There are also some really shaky sets (and not just intentionally so) used in the action sequences, and the film takes itself far too seriously for its callous disregard of the laws of physics to come across as play. This isn't a film that set out to be entertainingly terrible; rather, its condition is a happy accident. It doesn't have much killer instinct but it will give you a whale of a time.

Reviewed on: 08 Apr 2014
Share this with others on...
Orca - The Killer Whale packshot
After his partner and unborn child are killed, a killer whale seeks revenge on the humans responsible.
Amazon link

Director: Michael Anderson

Writer: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati

Starring: Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, Bo Derek, Keenan Wynn, Robert Carradine

Year: 1977

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


Search database:

If you like this, try: