Orca brings together some of the finest actors. Richard Harris, who unfortunately will be remembered for some trivial movie about a boy wizard and a throwaway musical about King Arthur, does his finest work in Orca. His portrayal of Captain Nolan, an emotionally torn fisherman coming to terms with the fact the marine animals have feelings, deserved the Oscar. Did he win? No, that is not a strike against this fine film. Charlotte Rampling brings texture to the marine biologist in love with a whale baby killer. The romance between the two is subtle. While most modern Hollywood movies would just throw in a gratuitous sex scene, Rampling accomplishes just as much with confused looks and having her shirt zipped down in one scene. Will Sampson, who is sadly better known for some movie about flying over a cuckoo's nest, also does a fantastic job of playing the Native American guy who says cryptic things and has ice fall on him. Robert Carradine, famous for Revenge of the Nerds, shows great range in not being around much and then being eaten by the whale. Bo Derek never equaled her success in this film elsewhere. I really believed her leg was bit off. She sold me.
The effects were great for the time. Many forget what special effects were like in those days, myself included because I was not born yet, but the point remains. The strange fisheye lens used to represent the whales point of view was genius. And I challenge everyone to find a more realistic looking whale fetus in a movie. You can't, you just can't. The dramatic fight between Captain Nolan and the whale could have easily become silly, but it doesn't. The Arctic Circle is accurately represented as a cold place with many iceberg, some of which whales can thwack themselves upon catapulting middle-aged Irishmen forty feet in the air. Keep in mind, also, this was done without the use of computer graphics. Steven Spielberg did not even put the shark in Jaws until over halfway through the film. Why? To hide a machine so fake that I can only assume one of his children made it at camp. The mechanical killer whale in Orca is almost indistinguishable from the stock footage of killer whales continually played throughout the movie.
In 1977, how many directors were brave enough to shoot a killer whale jumping from one side of the boat, eating actor Robert Carradine, and landing on the other side? Just one, Michael Anderson. His bold choices along with screenwriters Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati (who both show an above average command of the English languages for native-born Italian speakers) make the film a statement not only about whale hunting and whale forgiveness seeking, but also about humanity. Charlotte Rampling's appeal to Nolan not to go fight the whale just because the whale wants revenge is not just about social protocols of how to make it up to the father of a whale baby you accidentally killed, but also an argument against the death penalty. Will Sampson's pointless death is an indictment of the senseless slaughter of tens of millions of Native Americans. When the whale knocks down Captain Nolan's house without any explanation of this whale became such a genius that he can not only knows to knock down structural supports but also can look up addresses in the phone book, it directly shows how our incursion into the world of nature is two-fold. Robert Carradine's tragic death in the film is social commentary on the probability of being eaten if you stand around on a boat being followed by a crazed killer whale. And probably also something about Vietnam, I assume.
And while most in Hollywood choose not to admit it, many have ripped off Orca. The dead baby scene in Trainspotting is suspiciously reminiscent of the dead whale fetus scene in Orca. The creepy quasi-romance between an intelligent female and a somewhat crazy violent child murderer is directly stolen by George Lucas for Star Wars: Episode II. The use of icebergs is blatantly co-opted by Titanic, and I have never heard James Cameron so much as thank Michael Anderson. And don't even get me started on Free Willy. Orca is a complicated story. If you only enjoy movies with obvious heroes and villains, this is not for you. The characters are conflicted. Very conflicted. Take for instance how the killer whale jumps for joy after biting off Bo Derek's leg. The whale shows both glee in his jumps, but also the pain of having lost his family and never being able to bring them back no matter how hard he fights those who took them from him. Like Batman. You see, the only thing black and white in this movie is the killer whale itself. While Orca does not now get the respect it deserves, in time people will realize its genius. Just as people did not understand gravity or continental drift, in time they will come to recognize Orca as the greatest cinematic achievement of all time.