Depending on where you live, Orca is either shown all the time or never it all. The film has an incredibly bad reputation and in fact this does not really come as a surprise: this is a film by Michael Anderson, the director of a.o. Logan’s Run (also plagued with its reputation). Nevertheless, I think it is a good film and will try and explain why it deserves its place in the Vault.
It is very hard (or even impossible) to label Orca (also known as Orca: Killer Whale. What exactly is this film? It’s a drama, a love story, an odessey, a revenge film and then you haven’t thrown in the scientific bits and its flirting with exploitation.
Films that can’t be labelled are often not very good. Compare it to the proverb “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. If you try to flavour your film with ingredients of many genres, you often end up with a dinner that doesn’t taste good at all. But just like there are cooks which are able to mingle the weirdest ingredients and end up with a yummy dish, some directors are talented enough to make a film that goes beyond genre conventions.
Anderson is such a director. Logan’s Run and Orca are two examples of genreless films. Logan’s Run never decides whether it’s a sci-fi adventure story or a love drama. Orca, as I mentioned above, has no clue whatsoever of what sort of a film it is. That is what makes the film so fragile. You’re not supposed to expect anything when watching the film or you might end up bitterly disappointed.
The first images of Orca are extremely beautiful. We see a couple of orcas making out in the middle of the ocean. The sky is beautifully photographed and it gives you a fuzzy feeling. The first human being we see is Charlotte Rampling, diving and trying to avoid a shark. The sight of Charlotte Rampling is virtually always a sign you’re watching a cult movie. In a filmography of over 65 films Rampling has starred in dozens of essential cult films (including the highly controversial The Night Porter). Furthermore, she’s a good actress.
Rampling’s character blocks Richard Harris’s attempt to kill the shark. He is a hunter, she is a biologist. Both are intrigued by each other: she would like to know how someone who’s always at sea knows so little about his surroundings, he wants to know more about the orca they’ve seen.
Harris ends up catching the female orca and (in one of the most painful scenes of the seventies) it turns out she was pregnant. The male orca is the perfect example of the lover who swears a pitiless revenge.
Though a lot of the scientific mumbojumbo in the film is apparently nonsense that just sounded good, the film's tagline gives you a good sense of what to expect: "The killer whale is one of the most intelligent creatures in the universe. Incredibly, he is the only animal other than man who kills for revenge. He has one mate, and if she is harmed by man, he will hunt down that person with a relentless, terrible vengeance - across seas, across time, across all obsticles."
Though Orca is mainly a revenge film and an almost mythical clash between two heavyweights (Harris and the orca), Anderson’s film doesn’t just show orca revenging his wife plus man hunting orca. I fear such a film would end up either boring or a rip-off of Jaws. Some have already dismissed Orca as a rip-off, but those viewers obviously didn’t pick up on everything else in the film. The characters (even the orca) are not one-dimensional and so their personas are explored. That does stand in the way of a revenge tale, but Orca doesn’t care. The film shows how characters cope with being in such a situation and therefore takes time to explore other parts of the characters. If you must, label it as a mythical drama.
The film is also helped by a wonderful soundtrack of Ennio Morricone. Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling are great in their roles and alongside them you have Bo Derek in her debut role (a few years before she’d become a sex symbol with films as 10 and Bolero). Bo Derek turned down the leading role in the King Kong remake, going for a mythical orca rather than a giant ape.
I hope I warmed you up for Orca. When you see it, do not forget this most important advice: do not expect anything. Just sit down and follow the myth.
The Kurtodrome Vault is part of the Kurtodrome.