Cult Movies: Orca a whale-y enjoyable romp through creaky deep sea clichés

Richard Harris and Jacqueline Bisset in Orca
Richard Harris and Jacqueline Bisset in Orca

Orca – The Killer Whale

AS THE Meg 2 rises from the deep to terrorise multiplexes this weekend, it feels like a good time to revisit another deep sea cinematic colossus, albeit it one from a decidedly simpler and less bombastic era.

When Orca – The Killer Whale arrived on cinema screens in 1977, it was considered a bit of a disaster, both commercially and critically – and it has never really gathered much in the way of respect since.

On a surface level, that's understandable: Orca is, let's be honest, a load of old rubbish. Mere mouldy old chum to throw overboard, at best. It's also, as is often the way with such things, a hugely enjoyable romp through the creakiest old deep sea clichés imaginable.

It's deceptively big in its approach, boasts an impressive cast with the great Richard Harris front and fairly sozzled centre, and even the aquatic beast at its core is lovable enough.

Director Michael Anderson's film has always suffered from accusations that it's a mere 'pound shop Jaws', swimming along in the commercial current stirred up by Spielberg's 1975 game-changer. Given its basis in 'man versus sea creature' mythology, that's understandable, and the comparisons with the – let's not kid ourselves – infinitely better Jaws are inevitable.

It's more of a Moby Dick homage really, though: a B-movie stab at the story, but a fun one all the same.

Front and centre of this oddly moral tale is, of course, Orca, the whale who's been living peacefully with his pod until a boat turns up and viciously murders his pregnant partner. Hell-bent on revenge (for whales are known to harbour grudges, right?), he follows the boat back to harbour and starts wrecking all before him in an attempt to get the man responsible back out to sea and face justice.

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Orca is out for revenge in this fishy post-Jaws cash-in
Orca is out for revenge in this fishy post-Jaws cash-in

That man is a captain called Nolan, played with scenery-chomping delight by Richard Harris. The notorious hellraiser throws himself into the complex role of Nolan like an actor possessed and, quite possibly, alcoholically-enhanced. He sympathises with the whale's outrage, but also doesn't want to die, so a battle of wills between beast and man ensues.

The cast also includes Charlotte Rampling as a whale expert, whom we first meet in a needless black rubber wetsuit, and Bo Derek, playing, inexplicably, a sailor who is also drawn into the drama.

The effects are pretty risible, and much of the footage of whales seems to be taken at water parks, which means we see them bobbing about in crystal clear waters much of the time. The less said about the plastic creations floating lifelessly into shot at the worst possible moments, the better.

Such flaws only add to the appeal of this would-be serious study of the dangers of messing with the creatures of the sea, and there's much fun to be had listening to the preposterous voice-over from Rampling and in guessing how many drams Harris had before each sequence was shot.

It's a huge belly-flop of a movie in so many ways, but go in with the right attitude and there's still a whale of a time to be had all the same.