Orca

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Any film that achieves huge success inspires copycats in Hollywood, but few people realize what a burden this is on the imitators. For example, when the Harry Potter movies came around, everyone else in Hollywood was like, “Aw, crap, now we gotta find a young-adult-fantasy franchise of our own,” and that meant scrambling for source material, hiring people to design magical creatures, looking for elderly British actors to put beards on, and so forth. Being derivative and unoriginal is a real pain.

“Jaws” created a similar headache when it broke box-office records in 1975. Suddenly the companies that rented out underwater camera equipment were overwhelmed as everyone hurried to make their own aquatic horror movies, and the nation’s marine biologists were peppered with inquiries from producers’ assistants. “Are a dolphin’s teeth sharp enough to rip off a guy’s arm?” “Could a great white shark hold a machine gun?” “Do octopuses ever have fewer than eight tentacles? We’re trying to save money on rubber models.”

The most obvious counterattack to “Jaws”-mania was “Orca,” about a killer whale — why, the animal has the word “killer” right there in its name! It was released two years (almost to the day) after “Jaws,” but it failed to ignite the same kind of passion and enthusiasm, for a reason that you have probably already guessed: It’s a bad movie about stupid people doing idiotic things.

“Orca” is set in Newfoundland, which apparently is a real place. Nolan, played by famed alcoholic Richard Harris, is a sea captain who makes his living capturing sharks and selling them to aquariums. In the first scene, he and his crew are pursuing a great white, which the movie is insistent on reminding you was the same fearsome creature that scared you in a certain other movie two summers ago. But then, just when you think the shark is going to kill somebody, an orca comes along and kills the shark! The message: “Jaws” was crap because it was only about a puny great white shark. KILLER WHALES ARE EVEN SCARIER!!!

Duly inspired, Nolan now wants to catch an orca. This concerns local professor Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), who doesn’t want any of the majestic creatures harmed. In a further attempt to convince us that killer whales are terrifying, the movie makes us sit in on one of Professor Rachel’s university lectures, in which she waxes rhapsodic on the orca’s intelligence and capacity for communication. In many ways, they are even more advanced than we are! Rachel says, “What we call language they might call unnecessary, or redundant, or retarded.” Well, Rachel, if you think killer whales would be that condescending, why are you such a big fan of them? I know I wouldn’t be friends with someone who thought my manner of speech was retarded.

Speaking of which, Bo Derek is in this movie. It was her first film. She plays a member of Nolan’s crew. Her first line is exclaimed from the crow’s nest: “Fin at 2 o’clock!” Later, a killer whale eats her leg. This concludes the Bo Derek portion of this column.

Nolan assures Rachel that he’ll capture an orca without harming it. Then he shoots a harpoon at a pregnant female orca and kills her and her baby. You get the idea Nolan’s reassurances don’t mean very much. For what it’s worth, he was aiming at the male orca and got the lady orca by mistake. And he didn’t know she was pregnant, of course — she’s a whale, for crying out loud. Those things are always fat.

But the harpoon doesn’t kill her right away. It just makes her scream a lot. Oh, what’s that you say? You didn’t know orcas could scream? Neither did I! But apparently they do.

In addition to screaming, the pregnant orca swims directly into the boat’s propeller, which Nolan and his crew interpret as a suicide attempt, which seems to be giving orcas a lot more credit than they deserve (no offense to Professor Rachel, who believes killer whales can write poetry and solve algebraic equations). That’s when Nolan’s people haul it onboard and hoist it up by its tail, whereupon the fetus plops out unceremoniously onto the deck. You may recall that the same thing happened in the episode of “The Love Boat” that was written by H.P. Lovecraft. Nolan is appropriately horrified, and he responds in the only logical manner, which is to rinse the half-gestated baby orca overboard with a fire hose, calling to mind the old “South Pacific” showtune, “I’m Gonna Wash That Fetus Right Offa My Boat.”

All of this occurs in full view of the male orca, who we are led to understand was the husband and father of this happy killer whale family. He is distressed by this turn of events, to say the least, and he vows to get revenge on Nolan. You probably didn’t know orcas were capable of enacting personal vendettas, either. Shows what you know, dummy. Maybe you should enroll at Newfoundland Community College and take Professor Rachel’s popular course “Spurious Half-Truths Concerning Aquatic Mammals,” in which you will also learn of the blue whale’s love of Civil War reenactments and the dolphin’s knack for composing oboe concertos.

Nolan and crew dock at a nearby fishing village, where the locals are angry with him for killing an orca and her unborn baby (or, depending on your views, two orcas). A Native American named Umilak (Will Sampson) arrives just in time to fill the movie’s stereotype quota, backing up all the crazy things Rachel has been saying about killer whales. “She speaks to you the truth,” he says. “She knows it from the university; I know it from my ancestors.” And the truth is that the vengeance-minded orca is not going to rest until Nolan is destroyed.

So the killer whale embarks on a campaign of harassment, facilitated by Nolan’s refusal to just stay away from the water. The orca kills a couple crew members, sinks some boats, bites off Bo Derek’s leg, sends threatening e-mails, calls Nolan’s house and hangs up, and ruins his credit rating. Finally Nolan can’t stand it anymore and heads out to sea on his boat to do battle with the orca face to face.

The lesson to be learned here is that you should never let a whale tell you what to do. I wouldn’t have thought this needed to be spelled out. But as we learn in a flashback, the reason Nolan has been so emotionally affected by the orca’s grief is that years ago, Nolan’s own pregnant wife was killed by a drunk driver. So he can relate to the orca’s pain over losing his mate and offspring, especially since Nolan’s wife and baby were also washed away with a fire hose.

Even though heading to sea to fight a deranged whale is clearly a suicide mission, several people are willing to accompany Nolan on it. He is evidently a more charismatic leader than the movie had let on. Umilak, Professor Rachel, and Nolan’s original crew member Paul (Peter Hooten) all sign on for the dangerous voyage, and it’s not spoiling anything to reveal that they all die except for Rachel. Whoops, actually that is spoiling something. Sorry. The whale uses the time-honored technique of pushing a small iceberg into Nolan’s boat, causing no end of trouble; when Nolan scrambles out onto an ice floe, the orca flops up onto one end of it, causing the other end to lift up like a teeter-totter and Nolan to slide down into the water. This is accomplished despite the absence of a fulcrum. Rachel would probably tell you that killer whales have the ability to defy Newton’s laws of motion and execute leverage without a pivot point, but she’d be lying.

Amazingly, “Orca” has a hauntingly beautiful musical score by the legendary composer Ennio Morricone. It culminates in a song sung over the closing credits in which Morricone’s gorgeous melody is set to incredibly stupid lyrics. We end this edition of Eric’s Bad Movies with those lyrics.

My Love, We Are One
Lyrics by Carol Connors

I will bring the sun through darkened clouds
And I will leave with you rainbows for your eyes
Rainbows for your eyes
My love, we are one
We are one
We are one, cried my love
Let me lead you where moonlit waters fall
Shadows softly call
My love, we are one
We are one
We are one, cried my love
Let me lead you through the stillness of the night
Deliver dawn’s first light
My love, we are one
We are one
We are one
We are one.

— Film.com