A wannabe "Jaws" rip-off theorized what would happen if a killer whale wreaked revenge on humanity — "Orca" was a warning. Let's be honest: it's kind of a surprise that it's taken this long for killer whales to revolt against humans. We've poisoned their oceans, killed their young, and forced them into a life of showbiz in cramped theme park pools. Humans had a good run but it seems that orcas are the new mammals in charge.
Sailors working off the coast of Western Europe have reported a series of attacks by a group of orcas they said seemed to be "coordinated." This included striking and sinking a number of boats, although no human casualties have been reported. Some scientists said spikes in aggression may have been started by a female orca nicknamed White Gladis, who is believed to have suffered trauma after a collision with a sailboat.
While other experts are more skeptical and have noted that the vast majority of orcas are harmless to humans, this news has sparked many conversations about what these whales know and if they could possess a propensity for vengeance. We know that orcas are sophisticated animals who are fiercely devoted to their family pods. It doesn't seem unreasonable to imagine the true kings of the ocean getting revenge on the biped mouth-breathers who wronged them.
It would certainly make for fascinating entertainment, although pop culture typically views orcas as gentle giants and friends of cutesy human moppets, as with "Free Willy." "Jaws," they ain't, although "Orca" did dive into that possibility with fascinating results.
Orca Is A Blatant Jaws Rip-Off
It's easy to downplay just how much "Jaws" changed cinematic history. Steven Spielberg's beach thriller, adapted from a schlocky horror novel by Peter Benchley, exploded upon release and almost immediately became the highest-grossing film of all time. Alongside "Star Wars," it helped to define the entire concept of the summer blockbuster, and to this day, it's considered a classic.
As always happens in Hollywood, everyone saw the success of "Jaws" and decided to replicate it by essentially ripping off that film's concept of a killer shark attacking an unsuspecting community. "Mako: The Jaws of Death" focused on a man with a telepathic connection to sharks who sets out to protect them from cruel humans. "Grizzly" swapped out the shark for a bear with a taste for human flesh. Joe Dante and Joe Corman went more tongue-in-cheek with "Piranha," which earned the honor of being called "the best" of the "Jaws" rip-offs by Spielberg himself. Even the official "Jaws" sequels couldn't make lightning strike twice.
One mogul especially keen to cash in on the success of "Jaws" was Dino De Laurentiis, the infamous Italian producer who gave the world films as varied as "Blue Velvet," "Flash Gordon," "Army of Darkness," and the '70s "King Kong" remake where he climbs up the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He instructed his regular collaborator, producer Luciano Vincenzoni, to "find a fish tougher and more terrible than the great white."
That led him to the orca, an animal that, at the time, was seen as rather mysterious. There were, however, a number of documented orca attacks on humans in captivity, which included incidents such as a SeaWorld trainer being bitten on the legs and a Canadian aquarium trainer being dragged around the pool and almost drowning. And so, 1977's "Orca" was born.
Orca Is A Very Weird Movie
"Orca" was directed by Michael Anderson, the Oscar nominee behind "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Dam Busters." With Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling in the lead roles, it seemed at first like a far more prestige-driven project than that which it sought to copy. Of course, that didn't last long. The film follows a surly Irish Canadian sea captain named Nolan (Harris) who hunts marine animals for cash. After witnessing an orca attacking a shark — see, "Orca" literally beats "Jaws" in this movie — Nolan decides to entrap the whale. Things quickly go wrong when he harpoons a pregnant female, who then miscarries before dying herself. Her mate witnesses the murder and decides to wreak revenge on Nolan.
The orca's mission quickly becomes very intense. He dumps the corpse of his mate onto the shore as a warning sign to Nolan. He terrorizes the small town where Nolan lives, essentially destroying its fishing market until the villagers revolt against Nolan, and then blows up their fuel pipelines. At one point, he bites off Annie's (Bo Derek) leg, then wrecks Nolan's house. Soon, Nolan knows he has only one option left: to face the orca down, Spaghetti Western-style, atop the icebergs around the Newfoundland coast.
This story is already bonkers, with a whale basically becoming Dirty Harry without the guns, but it's made all the weirder by the direction of "Orca." Imagine the B-movie schlock of a Corman film, the portentous metaphors of "Moby-Dick," the revenge fantasy of "Death Wish," and the cinematographic elegance of a David Attenborough nature documentary, complete with a hauntingly beautiful score by Ennio Morricone. For a "Jaws" rip-off, it had some real ambition behind it.
Orca Is A Hardcore Tale Of Revenge And Guilt
The fingerprints of "Jaws" are obviously all over "Orca," and critics called that out the moment it was released. It certainly lacks Steven Spielberg's impeccable control of the camera and isn't helped by the fact that their leading man, Richard Harris, was reportedly extremely drunk during production (and kept performing his own stunts, which did not end well). Yet it's also aiming for something more literary than its biggest inspiration.
Nolan becomes the Ahab of "Moby-Dick" but reluctantly so, haunted by a whale who won't leave him be that represents the darkest recesses of his guilt. His descent into madness, a rare instance of a performance being positively aided by the actor's inebriation, feels raw and palpably real. The stakes are high, made all the more painful by the sheer visceral violence of "Orca." The scene where the female whale miscarries and dies is genuinely shocking, to the point where you wonder how the hell they got away with making it in the '70s.
Unlike other "Jaws" wannabes, which deliver their ocean madness with a wink and a nod, "Orca" takes its admittedly silly premise 100% seriously. It also sides entirely with the whale over the humans, even as Nolan reveals his own tragic backstory involving the deaths of his family. We're still living in the aftermath of "Jaws" and its demonization of sharks, which even Spielberg came to regret, with conservationists citing the film as a major reason for public fear of an animal that seldom ever kills humans.
With "Orca," the film wants you to root not just for the whale but for nature as a whole. Charlotte Rampling delivers monologues that wouldn't sound out of place at an animal rights protest while the whale all but blows up a coastal town, and he's not the bad guy here! By the end of "Orca," you get the sense that the humans got off lightly.
How Orcas Are Depicted In Film
"Orca" was a mild box office success, but it didn't come close to "Jaws" levels of money, nor did it inspire further orca-related revenge films. The orca's biggest moment in the cinematic spotlight came in 1993 with the family drama "Free Willy." That tale, of a captured orca forced into captivity at a theme park who befriends a young human boy, became an unexpected pop culture phenomenon. Several sequels followed, including a truly inexplicable kids' TV cartoon where the protagonist gains magical abilities to hear animals talk and Willy must fight an evil cyborg who dresses like the Phantom of the Opera.
Yet its legacy is complex. This was a film about the evils of capturing wild marine life for entertainment that was reliant on the involvement of a captured orca named Keiko. While the movie's success did lead to Keiko being freed and a failed reintegration into ocean life, it didn't quash the popularity of animal attractions at marine parks such as SeaWorld. Indeed, it may have bolstered them in some manner.
The most influential and perhaps most infamous film featuring an orca is "Blackfish," Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary on the captive orca Tilikum and the three people he killed, including a SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau. For many, this film was their first unflinching insight into the cruelty of holding such majestic creatures in captivity and training them to do shows. While SeaWorld claimed that "Blackfish" was "inaccurate and misleading," it was clear that the film made an impact.
Attendance to SeaWorld declined following its release, and legislation was introduced to ban orcas from being kept in captivity. In 2016, SeaWorld finally announced plans to end both the killer whale shows and its orca breeding programs. It was a long time coming. Orcas may not have been fully understood by the general public for decades, but culturally speaking, their intelligence and danger have never been hidden. When even a bonkers revenge film like "Orca" understands that point, you have to wonder why nobody saw the inevitable happening. If the whales truly come to wreck all of our s***, don't say we weren't warned.
Read this next: Every Steven Spielberg-Directed Horror Movie, Ranked
The post The Whales are Revolting Against Humanity and a Forgotten Jaws Rip-Off Warned Us appeared first on /Film.