Nature gone amok was not a new fixation in film by 1977; it was merely, and suddenly, a now respectable one after the release of Jaws. From the heyday of the early 1970s, with infamous concoctions such as Frogs and the dumbfounding, absolutely beguiling Night of the Lepus, environmentalism and scientific experimentation on animals were on the mind, and like any good red blooded progressive concerned about their country without forgetting its make-a-buck capitalist origins as a nation, every huckster in the business wanted in on the trend.
Also, because it is America, and was still America in the 1970s mind you, these filmmakers wanted to abuse the progressive hope and social critique of environmentalism by marrying it to hopelessly audience-baiting exploitation-cinema. You know, that way they could get everyone into the theater with a superficial fist-pump for the animals as they maul the humans who had done them wrong. But when asked, those same filmmakers could bat off the horrors of their animal-as-murderer stories with half-hearted claims of noble intent, and of exploring the animals’ plights rather than abusing them for cheap horror.
And as we know, nothing is better than a bad movie with good intentions. Something about that peculiar microbrew of circus-leader ambition, free-spirited belief in your own project, and clamorously incompetent filmmaking from the ground up just fills the air with thoughts of the 1970s in full bloom, don’t it? The trouble is, only one person at this time really believed his sick stuff, and although he wasn’t actually American, he typified the American steal-and-make-it-bigger aesthetic more than anybody: Dino De Laurentiis. A monster-producer all over the Western world, Laurentiis used his quixotic belief in the prismatic capabilities of film to make a dollar in just about every pocket of film land he could find. No matter how foul his films were, he always believed in their power to fill his bank account, and to do right by the world.
So prismatic in fact were his omnivorous intentions that his corpus of releases could go from unmitigated military-grade schlock to forward-thinking slices of sheer brilliance on a film-by-film basis. Federico Fellini made a morose work of pure poetry about a clown? Get him, get rid of the clown, fund a new one. David Lynch is the new man-about-town in the art film world? Get him, get rid of the art, fund a new one. Oh, and give him enough money to make his own personal-piece while he is at it; if it happens to be one of the great films of the decade, it’ll attract the art house crowd, and they have money too, right? They’re probably upper middle class professors or something. Get ’em in the theater.
And on one occasion, Laurentiis went something like this: “Sharks are big today. Get them, lose the sharks, put something like a shark in, fund it. Oh, and put a shark back into the opening so everyone knows what the deal is”. In the mid 1970s, no film was as big as Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s legitimately zeitgeist-defining hit and the true impetus for a rising trend of young blockbuster filmmakers who would soon overtake the artistic ambitions of the medium for something a touch more gilded. And gilded was a word that, no matter where it was spoken across the land, made De Laurentiis’ tail stand on end. If this young hot-to-trot thriller director was about to take over the world, De Laurentiis wasn’t about to not get in on the action, even if Spielberg himself wasn’t willing to go to bat.
Furthermore, Laurentiis wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to make it droopily poetic and manipulative in its desire to teach and educate, was he? Of course not; white-knuckle nihilism and depressing filmmaking perfection were so 1975. His film needed something different, something for the kids. His film was gonna have a moral! The resulting project, Orca, would not just be a film about a whale out for revenge, but a film about a whale on a mission from god to teach a lapsed-Irish saint about the errors of his ways.
Orca, incidentally, establishes its rough-around-the-edges brand of noble animal-porn right from the get-go with a stunningly daffy attempt at empty poetry as we watch the titular killer whales do their everyday business in the water accompanied by some pristine, shimmering ’70s cinematography and a, let us call it “haunting”, introductory clip of orca sonar that is supposed to imbibe in all the creep floating around the whales. Those whales, you see, are beautiful creatures, until, of course, man does them wrong and they turn into some of the most singularly efficient killing machines in the world. More efficient than man himself it would seem. How about that?
Speaking of killing, Orca begins its action in proper with a fake-out that is frankly, pure bliss. A crew of animal poachers, led by Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), is off hunting a great white shark when one of his crew falls in the water. The shark rushes toward him, and just when we expect the man is to be fish-food, an orca comes out and kills the shark, before giving the man a bro-five. Maybe not that last part. But it is such a wonderfully phallic-waving moment on the film’s part, essentially saying to us “you saw that lame shark movie? Well here’s what to do with your lame shark movie. Our whale is ten times a more dangerous threat, and he’s got more style too.”
From there, things devolve into delirium at a very basic structural level. This isn’t one of those functional screenplays ruined by incompetent filmmaking we love to talk about as an example of a missed opportunity. Oh no, at the level of sheer nuts and bolts writing, Orca could only be a golden opportunity, an opportunity for sheer lunacy and rampaging, marauding self-serious finger-waving. You see, Nolan captures an orca at this point, essentially saying “well this thing killed my shark, and I’m not going to leave empty-handed”. Upon dragging the orca onto his boat, we learn that the whale was pregnant; the fetus jumps out dead-on-arrival, and although Nolan lets the female whale go, she soon dies to. Papa whale, however, was there all along, and he remembers the moment. He is not about to forget it.
We know he isn’t about to forget it because the film is dead-set on showing us as much in its continued close-ups on the watery whale’s soggy, melancholy eyeball, a shot whose empty-headedness in the film is matched only by its repetition. A shot, also, which climaxes in a mid-film moment that is quintessential De Laurentiis: Nolan, standing on a dock at night, looks out into the water and sees the whale, who in turn looks back with a steely grimace. Both staring on in contemplation and stolid fear, the film cuts between each of their eyes before inducing a series of bullet-point flashbacks to the accident that set these two men on a collision course. The shot, incidentally, is filmed in a way such that we are to know that it is neither Nolan nor the whale having the flashback, but both in unison, linked in their past as they are in their futures. Soon after, the whale starts a fire on the docks and gloats by performing a few glistening, rippling back-flips in the water in front of the explosion. It isn’t quite “man walks away from an explosion without looking,” but it does prove that the whale might have made a decent action hero. Presumably he would be played by Liam Neeson.
This fire was the De Laurentiis way. Go big or go home, and always, for every second of the production, believe in the power of movies to define a zeitgeist, to make a little money, and maybe be a film on the side. Right to the end, Orca never doubts itself. We never know what we are getting – that was De Laurentiis for you, a huckster but one whose identity was in the poetic fact that he had no identity, but instead chose to follow the identities of others. This was what separated him from the likes of William Castle and Roger Corman. It was what made some of his films accidental masterpieces of art, and some of them far more indescribably awful than one might imagine.
It was also what made his films tacky in a way that works by the self-knowing Corman and Castle never were. Even in his darkest days, even with the shoddiest screenplay, he refused to sell down or to doubt his own material, to think of it as fodder for the lesser film-goers of the world. He wasn’t just making well-made schlock, but a literary masterpiece in a visual form. Even when something like Orca was an unmitigated disaster from the ground up, he wanted it to be the greatest film ever made. Revenge, in this case, is a dish best served warm (blooded) and all that, but he wanted a little bit of meat to his inverted whale-hunts-human outline.
It was this anti-genius which instigated his desire to turn Orca into more than a garden-variety thriller. It was this desire which pushed him to include one of the most comatose narrations ever to grace a film, all “I can no longer understand the horrors of this once beautiful beast I thought I worshiped”. It was this desire which led him to crucify his work on a cross of curdled soul-searching and harsh lessons about the nature of the world. Just any schlock wouldn’t do for him; his films were going to come to terms with the world and critique the human ego and the male thirst for blood, even when occupying a shell that was patently unable to understand any facet of the human (or whale) emotional spectrum. His films were going to be everything, and stop at nothing in their quest to expose the horrors of violence committed by both human and whale. It is here where Orca fails miserably. And it is for the same reason that, almost forty years after its release, this bottled-up slice of post-Melville dementia is worthwhile viewing to this day. Not for the reasons De Laurentiis probably hoped, but hey, if people are seeing his movie, he’ll still have a smile on his face, wherever he is.
So how good is it really?: 1/5 (the unremitting and psychotically ingrained self-seriousness is a plague the film never recovers from)
But how “good” is it?: 5/5 (the unremitting and psychotically ingrained self-seriousness is a present to the world that the film can never top, but it couldn’t even if it tried)