CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy


Orca: Killer Whale Michael Anderson 1977

Free Willy vs. the Crusty Seamen

Equally disturbing and hilarious, Michael Anderson’s whale-with-a-temper epic Orca: Killer Whale is hot, trashy fun from start to finish. If you’ve ever fantasized that Shamu would suddenly jump out of his tank and crush 40 children to powder during a show at Sea World, this movie’s for you. Packed with completely unconvincing whale footage (the actor playing Orca obviously never leaves the comfort of his climate-controlled, finely-filtered crib at the local aquarium – despite pathetic attempts to suggest otherwise), fantastic images of Newfoundland and the Paramount backlot, and hot women (both the radiant Charlotte Rampling and the oddly rodential – yet entirely charming – newcomer Bo Derek). Orca is a baffling entry in the Nature Run Amok genre, a sobering tale of a whale done wrong by a drunk Irishman, and a total blast to boot. Greenpeace never released anything half this exciting.

Orca tells the story of a kindly killer whale who lives with his pod (duh – a group of whales, yo) in the chilly waters off the Canadian coast. Oddly, the coast itself is for some reason an attractive destination for a strange assortment of character actors, including Richard Harris (Captain Nolan, a crusty seaman), Charlotte Rampling (whale expert and total hottie Rachel Bedford), Bo Derek (Annie, another crusty seaman – well… you can probably finish that joke yourself…), Robert Carradine (Rachel’s cabanaboy Ken, who I don’t even think has a line) and Keenan Wynn (Wynn was in everything from Pirahna to Dr. Strangelove – and even served as Joan Crawford’s stunt double in 1934; here he plays an old fart fisherman). Of course, these people are all just sitting ducks to become victims to one of the most graceful, intelligent, and gentle creatures the world has ever known: Michael Anderson.

Actually, it’s the killer whale, or Orcus Metaphoricus, as Rachel explains in a lengthy and only mildly interesting hand-job about the animal that follows the downright rhapsodic opening footage of whales dancing in the moonlight and singing to each other in melodies that sound oddly like the work of Ennio Morricone. Following this admittedly beautiful intro (which should put to rest any suspicions that Orca is merely a Jaws ripoff), we see the salty seaman (Captain Nolan) and his fearless crew tracking a pod of whales until they come across a couple of divers being set upon by a great white shark (oops… scratch that Jaws bit). The shark approach is actually quite creepy – a large grey shape materializes over the shoulder of the diver, who quickly tries to bury himself under a coral reef. But in a hilarious display of anthropomorphic generosity that will reach critical mass as the film goes on, the shark actually turns its head when the diver drops a rock, as if to say, “wait – did you hear that?”, and the focuses in on the diver. Yes, I know that sharks respond to vibrations – but not vibrations of coral hitting the ocean floor. What, are they afraid that they dropped something? The way that the shark is shot in a medium close-up and honestly looks startled when he hears the noise is just a taste of things to come…

Anyway, the diver gets out of the water and pulls off his mask to reveal: Charlotte Rampling! In a hottie-unmasking worthy of Night School, our lady whale-fetishist is introduced, along with her strangely passive assistant, Ken. As the fishy folks on the boat try to pull Rachel and Ken off of their flimsy raft, Ken is of course tipped into the water, directly in the path of the supernaturally-sensitive shark. The shark charges Ken, and he looks like fish food... until Orca arrives, headbutting the shark and sending it clear out of the water in an impressive arc. The shark hits the water, battered and bloody, and Orca swims to the side of the tank for a nice mackerel and pat on the head. Cut to Rachel teaching an oddly voluminous class about killer whales, and cue the love story between audience and Orca.

The greatest thing about Orca (besides the awesome composite shots of the whale breaching in front of everything he destroys, which are pure brilliance) is that it never once makes the whale out to be any sort of villain. A far more ethical creature than man (who starts the whole feud when Nolan unwisely attacks one of the whales), Orca is also patient, wise, considerate, and thorough (no one gets out alive who had a hand in wronging him). He’s an ideal employee. He yields at yellow lights. His favorite herb is marjoram. In short, he’s easily the most charming thing in the film aside from Charlotte Rampling’s tendency to manifest exactly and only when she is needed to impart crucial and obscure information about the creature. Nolan, by contrast, is a drunk, temperamental, greedy mess – and Irish to boot. His crew is either dotty, inexperienced, or downright stupid, and don’t stand a chance when faced with this finned fella and his thirst for vengeance. Hell hath no fury like Free Willy with a dead babymommy.

Anyway, Nolan has it in his thick tinker head that if he catches a killer whale (Sure – “catches” a killer whale. Like “catching” a hemorrhoidal rhinoceros.) and sells it to an aquarium, he can move back to Ireland. Now, I don’t know much about poaching and all that, but don’t whales have serial numbers or something? Don’t aquariums do some sort of background checks to see where their merchandise comes from? I can’t imagine that just anybody can saunter up to an aquarium with just any killer whale they pick up on the street and say, “Hey – wanna buy a whale? Real cheap.” Anyway, Nolan goes after the whales and unceremoniously harpoons Orca’s wife, Orcette. In a disturbing turn, Orcette (who is understandably distraught about the giant metal spike sticking out of her head) tries to kill herself by ramming into the boat’s propellers. Orca, naturally, is horrified. To make things worse, Nolan hoists the 25-foot lady up into the air and holds her, screaming and bleeding, over the deck of his boat. Now he’s starting to realize that he has no fucking clue what to do with a screaming, bleeding sea mammal, but wait – things get even more interesting. Without warning (unless you speak whale-scream), a giant fetus POPS out of the poor lady’s tailtrophy and splats onto the deck. The crew is understandably horrified, and Orca – who is watching all this from the water – is of course traumatized. Once Nolan sweeps the stillborn baby off deck and dumps Orcette’s corpse into the water, we know that things are “on” for a hell of a showdown.

For starters, the dutiful and heartbroken Orca nudges his dear mate’s body (they do mate for life, you know – unlike us) to the shore near town, so that the townspeople will know that she was harpooned by Nolan. Then he sets upon sinking the townspeople’s fishing boats – all but Nolan’s. The townspeople are of course really pissed at this (they’re also not too pleased about the whale – who is hovering just outside of the bay, waiting for Nolan – scaring off the fish supply), and they basically tell Nolan that he’d better make right with the little fella or they’ll throw him into the sea. Things get even hotter when the incredibly clever whale manages to blow up the power plant from the ocean, of course happily jumping out of the water as Rome burns. To up the ante, Orca (having already eaten Keenan Wynn -- I imagine he was tough and stringy) attacks Nolan's home, which is conveninetly on stilts on the open ocean. Unfortunately for her, Bo Derek is convalescing inside from a broken ankle, and when the entire house tilts on its side (following a great quivering-wine-glass anticipation moment), the poor lass slides right into the mouth of Orca, who gleefully grabs her by the cast and rips her leg out of its socket. Sorry, Bo -- you've gone from 10 to 5.

Nolan finally decides to risk the lives of the rest of his crew and friends (including newly-acquired Minority Sage, Umilak -- played by Will Sampson of Poltergeist II, who basically enters frame with a number on his back) by following Orca out to sea. And follow him they do, losing both his first-mate, Umilak, and his dignity in the process. Led to the ice floes of northern, northern Canada, Nolan and Rachel are finally sunk by an iceberg (which Orca cleverly pushes into the side of the boat), and the whale manages to get Nolan isolated on a floating patch of ice, cut off from land. Orca tips the floe, circles Nolan for about 5 minutes, and with a flip of his mighty tail, tosses Nolan smack into the side of an iceberg, killing him instantly. Nolan slides into the ocean, Rachel the whale-fucker lives on to tell the tale to her grandchildren, and poor sweet Orca drifts off under the ice cap, to sufficate and die. No, seriously -- he does: his family wiped out and his vengeance satisfied, he swims under the ice to die. If only my ex-boyfriends would have the same sense of dignity...

Anyway, as you can tell, this shit is all about DRAMA. Orca is understandably one pissed off sushi deluxe, and Anderson is able to really render him as a sympathetic character and formidable foe for Harris's utterly unlikeable anti-hero (sure, his pregnant wife was killed by a drunk driver -- but the drunk driver didn't shoot his wife with a harpoon and hoist her over his boat for hours). The supporting cast is serviceable, but they're really just lined up like a Shoney's buffet for our hero, the really pissed-off killer whale; some lame subplots like Rachel's apparent and completely unbelievable attraction to Nolan are thankfully given minimal screen time -- and then it's more jumping whales and carnage. Thanks to a charismatic lead (the fish), a beautiful score, and some incredibly lush oceanic views, Orca is definitely worth a dip.

Rating (out of 5):