Orca (1977)



All notes and summary below by Stephen Weaver (2006).

Notes: Paramount.

Starring Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, Bo Derek.

Directed: Michael Anderson

Orca Kill Factor: Reasons why an orca should be an effective monster.

1.Size: Whales operate on a scale much larger than humans, and some are possibly the largest carnivores in the world.

2.Mouth: Compared to a human, a whale is mostly a moving mouth.

3.Intelligence: Whales and dolphins have arguable intelligence, possibly on par with humans.

4.Domain: Whales dominate the ocean, where humans are at the mercy of boats.

5.Borderstepper Quality: Whales are mammals, like humans, and have intelligence, but live in the water and are much larger than humans.

Orca: Killer Whale begins with images of orca whales swimming and leaping gracefully in the water. These images seem to signify the beauty of these creatures, rather than any idea of monstrosity or fear. In contrast, the main human character, Captain Nolan, is introduced as an insensitive, ignorant man, trying only to make money. In the opening scenes, Nolan’s crew is saved from a great white shark by a killer whale. This appears to be an attempt to cement the orca as a creature greater than that of 1975’s Jaws.

This encounter intrigues Nolan, who then decides to capture an orca and sell it to an aquarium. He speaks to Rachel Bedford, a local professor who happens to be an expert on whales. She gives a presentation where she explains the world of orcas, including the quick factoid that these whales have a “profound instinct for vengeance,” just like humans. I’m not entirely sure how this fact has been observed. Perhaps orcas have been subjected to The Vengeance Testtm, wherein the test animal is shown a picture of its spouse tied to a chair. Besides vengeance, the similarity of orcas to humans is mentioned several times, such as their ability to communicate, hammering in the idea that in this movie, the whale will be doppelganger to Nolan.

Nolan’s clumsy attempt at whale capturing does not go well. Showing his irresponsibility and ignorance, he tries to spear the apparent alpha male of the pod, only to accidentally maim its mate. The female is hauled aboard the ship by Nolan’s mentor, Novak, letting the dying creature hang from a tether, all while being watched intensely by the male. The female shrieks and screams, sounding “almost human,” until, in a greatly disturbing scene, it ejects its unborn child onto the ship’s deck, where Novak uses a hose to wash it out into the sea. This does horrify Nolan, which does nicely go against the idea that he was so inconsiderate. We see several close-ups of both the female and male whales’ eyes as Nolan is caught in their gazes. The enraged male attacks, brutally murdering Novak.

These events begin a series of whale attacks on the boats in the nearby fishing island. The local fishermen believe that orcas in the area will keep all the fish away, setting up conflict between Nolan and the locals. They want Nolan to destroy the whale, but Nolan is unsure, as he has started to understand the whale. Nolan reveals to Rachel that he lost his own pregnant wife before, and would have gone on a similar spree. They both consider the idea that even though the whale is intelligent, vengeance may have clouded his mind to the point where he is irrational. This connection fades, though, when the whale attacks Nolan’s boathouse, where he bites off the leg of another of Nolan’s crew. Nolan decides he will finally destroy the whale.

Nolan, along with the last of his crew and Rachel (and Umilak, one of the local fishermen whose characterization is so inconsistent he is barely worth mentioning), go to the site of the original tragedy. From there, they follow the whale north, where the intense cold and ice will be a danger to the both of them. Along the trip, the whale picks off the random members of the crew stupid enough to stand along the edge of the boat. They finally crash the boat into the ice, after the point where they could not return to the shipping island, and face the whale with guns (which Rachel has now decided are acceptable, despite her earlier claims against them). The whale kills Nolan, throwing him against an ice wall and then, anticlimactically, just swims away.

Orca seems to tell the story of man’s irresponsibility towards nature. Nolan treats the creatures of the sea as nothing more than prizes, and isn’t even good at that, maiming the female whale in his quest for the male. The male orca’s attacks could almost be a metaphor for Nolan’s horrible incident, where the hideous circumstances won’t go away, and keep destroying his career and crew. The whole film seems to be an ecological horror, where a peaceful creature is turned into a monster from man’s ignorance. Because of this, it is surprising that the film was made before the craze from 1993’s Free Willy.

There is also a heavy focus on the whale as a doppelganger for Nolan, with both having similar family situations, peppered with images of their eyes, culminating in a final shot of Nolan reflected in the whale’s eye. Unfortunately, no real conclusion is reached, despite the epic battle hinted at throughout the whole movie, and that undermines the strength of the conflict.

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