It’s easy to dismiss Orca as a rip off of the film Jaws. But in fact there’s much more to it than that: there’s a bit of Moby Dick in there as well. Released only two years after Spielberg’s iconic film, it tells the story of an Irish Canadian captain (Richard Harris) who makes a living capturing and selling sharks, but switches to orcas when he learns that they fetch a good price.
The film teaches us that orcas are easily provoked creatures, who have a propensity for vengeance, and whose many teeth could snap a man in half as though he were a mere twiglet. Hence it’s advised that viewers don’t follow the captain’s example and begin savagely attacking them for no real reason. Or if they must, they should be sure to kill the whole lot, thus eliminating the possibility of being hunted down by revenge-seeking orcas.
Most horror films work on the principle that the audience fears for the protagonist, whose life is being threatened by something truly horrifying, such as an escaped mental patient, a werewolf or — according to recent horror tropes — a grotesque mutant vagina with teeth. But Orca is different in this sense. It instead revolves around a character so utterly unlikeable that, when his life is threatened, the viewer’s first thought is to wonder what’s taking so long.
There is no suspense, no sense of trepidation; it evokes in viewers only a strong desire to watch a killer whale slowly maul a rather dim captain into a state in which he can no longer speak, move or yell out in pain.
So defiantly stupid is the captain that it’s a wonder his actions don’t raise concern amongst those unfortunate enough to interact with him. In real life he could be justifiably incarcerated for his reckless behaviour on the sea. Yet here his plans to hunt a killer whale are reluctantly tolerated and occasionally, when a shake of the head no longer suffices, met with a mildly irritated eye-roll.
By far his biggest critic is a scientist (Charlotte Rampling), an attractive, fiercely moral woman, who seems to resign from academia at the start of the film just so she has time to follow the captain around persuading him to stop being an idiot. At the root of their relationship is a disturbing sexual attraction, and occasionally, when the captain’s lechery can no longer be supressed, he makes a peculiar face, as though struggling to conceal the effects of indigestion.
In films significantly better than this one, one might hope for these two characters to get together. But not even a hopeless romantic would wish for such an outcome here, where both characters are so thoroughly annoying. Alas, only the vengeful orca comes across with so much as a hint of charisma, and that’s only because his intentions to kill the captain seem so faultless: the captain not only killed his mate, he killed the baby she was carrying as well.
During a moment of guilt, the captain finally admits that he was wrong to do this, and claims that he and the orca aren’t so unalike. He, too, knows how it feels to lose a loved one, for his pregnant wife was killed in a car accident some years earlier. This, we’re to believe, is what drives him to be such an insufferable dick, to laugh in the face of his critics, and to find joy in attacking the very creatures that make him his money.
But it’s not enough to feel pity for him, particularly after he’s just spent the last 45 minutes behaving so appallingly; and as the film heads into this rather dark direction, it’s hard to derive anything from it besides a slightly unsettling feeling. Orca is bad enough to depress its audience, and not quite campy enough to be unintentionally amusing. Mostly it is just very dull, lacking entirely the suspense that made Jaws so successful, and doing for killer whales what Weasels Rip My Flesh did for weasels.
Orca: The Killer Whale will be released on DVD 14 April