You better watch out. Better not cry, sucker. Because this month we’re taking a look at seven examples of cinematic revenge — the bloodier, the better.
Part 2: Orca
Orca is a very strange movie. I don’t mean strange in any consciously surreal or quirky sense (it is very straight-faced) but in how it feels like a chimera; an uncomfortable mixture of tones and aims and genre tropes. It’s weird in a way a movie can only be if it’s not trying to be weird.
Most obviously Orca is a Jaws cash-in, produced by Dino De Laurentiis just two years after Spielberg’s film. A natural horror film with a murderous sea creature as its villain, it’s the classier, big budget equivalent of Piranha. It even goes out of its way to one-up Jaws in one of the early scenes. A large, atypically human-hungry great white is interrupted mid-attack by another predator. The shark is dead in seconds, and Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling) declares that only one thing could have done this. Hint? It’s the title of the movie.
Bedford follows this up with a classroom exposition dump, the central thesis of which is, “Orcas are badass motherfuckers. Don’t fuck with orcas.” They’re powerful, their vocalizations can be heard from around the world, they’re super fast, they’re smart… How smart? Smarter than us? So smart that they possess that most human of urges, revenge?
Yes, Orca is a whale revenge film. We’re even introduced to our anti-hero in an idyllic montage of him frolicking with his mate to the lilting music of Ennio Morricone. This is the cetacean equivalent of a man playing soft-focus catch with his son before everything goes horribly, horribly wrong.
And wrong it goes, thanks to Captain Nolan (Richard Harris). Although he never seems particularly knowledgable about his job, Nolan makes a living in the waters off of Newfoundland, catching live sea creatures for aquariums. When he learns of killer whales — animals that are apparently new to him — he becomes fixated on capturing one for a big payday.
During his attempt to tranquilize a male orca he inadvertently wounds the whale’s mate, causing her to panic and attempt suicide against the propeller of his boat. Nolan and his crew hoist the female up onto the boat where, in a Cronenbergian bit of nastiness, it miscarries, ejecting a football-sized and disturbingly human-looking fetus onto the deck. The male orca witnesses all of this, screams in grief, and picks out Nolan as the person who murdered his family.
From there the whale starts stalking Nolan, attacking those around him in an attempt to draw him out into open water for a showdown. As you might gather, the whale is heavily anthropomorphized. He’s cartoonishly competent, to the point of knowing enough about gasoline to destroy a gas depot. An inland gas depot. He tauntingly breaches in the foreground as the facility goes up in balls of flame. It’s in moments like this that Orca feels like what it was originally intended to be: a Jaws rip-off that’s trying to out-Jaws the original. Bigger. Better. “Remember that scene where the shark pulls that little pier into the water? Well, check this out!”
But Orca is more off-kilter and somber than that. Nolan is guilt-ridden by his role in the female orca’s death. He lost his own wife and unborn child to a drunk driver and he recognizes himself as the male’s version of that driver. Through his own carelessness he caused a tragedy and, as the film goes on, his jovial charm gives way to self-recrimination.
“Can you commit a sin against an animal?” he asks a priest.
“Why, you can commit a sin against a blade of grass,” the priest responds. “Sins are really against oneself.”
With its mixture of creature feature goofiness and Shakespearian tragedy-begets-tragedy fatalism, Orca has the makings of something really unique and wonderful. It is certainly unique, but unfortunately it falls short of actually being good. The film puts a heavy emphasis on the character of Nolan, and Harris is a lot of fun in the role, but his thoughts and motivations are too opaque. We can only know what we’re shown and what we’re shown doesn’t seem earned. By the end it feels like Nolan is arriving at decisions simply because the film needs him to. There’s probably something interesting buried in there about grief and guilt and the desire for revenge, but we aren’t handed any shovels.
Orca is just over 90 minutes long and briskly paced. Other than some dodgy compositing and some whale shots that are clearly of captive whales with drooping dorsal fins, it is handsomely produced. The ice-bound climax is particularly impressive. As a whole it’s very watchable and interesting but it’s too slapdash when it comes to character and theme. Every so often I come across a movie where I think, “Man, I’d love to see this remade and remade right.” Bonkers genre elements and thematic depth aren’t mutually exclusive and Orca could have pulled off that combo. Unfortunately it never lives up to that promise.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Previous Installments of You Better Watch Out!