Written by the legendary Italian writing duo, Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati (Fistful of Dynamite/Death Rides a Horse), with an uncredited polish by Robert Towne, Orca-The Killer Whale is perhaps best remembered as the most competent of the Jaws rip-off films. While Vincenzoni (who also produced) and Donati were obviously aiming to simply steal some of Spielberg's thunder, they unwittingly cobbled together something of a minor masterpiece of the man vs. nature genre.
Richard Harris stars as Nolan, a weathered sea captain who hunts the big dogs of the sea; namely, Great Whites. Their livers alone are worth a fortune, and god help the man (or creature) that stands in the way of Nolan and his crew. During one such hunt, Nolan crosses paths with the lovely marine biologist, Rachel Bedford (Rampling), who is studying the language and behavior of the Killer Whale (or the Orca, as the local natives refer to it). Nolan falls for Rachel, and also develops something of an interest in the Orca, figuring that if he can capture a live one he can sell it to an aquarium for ten times what any shark livers would net him. Rachel finds out about his plans and warns him of the Orca's nature; it's a creature not unlike man, which mates for life, has feelings, and, most importantly, will not forget a creature that has wronged it. While he appreciates Rachel's passion for the animals, Nolan thinks she gives the fish much too much credit, and sets off to catch his biggest payday yet. However, when his attempts to capture a male Orca lead to the death of its mate and child, Nolan discovers that Rachel's warnings were not unfounded. The Orca kills one of Nolan's crew members, terrorizes the small fishing port from which he operates, and, essentially, "calls out" Nolan to finish what he started out on the open sea.
Of course, all of this is quite ridiculous, but that is precisely why this is such a fun movie. Orca is Death Wish at sea, with a Killer Whale taking on the role of vengeance fueled vigilante, sinking boats, chomping off legs, and setting fires (!) by sabotaging the fisheries fueling depot. It's all so gleefully insane that it's impossible to watch with a straight face.
On the flipside of things, however, is Orca's serious side; the performances by Harris and Rampling are superb, Michael Anderson's direction is refined, and the cinematography by J. Barry Herron and Ted Moore is simply gorgeous. All of that is topped off by a compelling Ennio Morricone score that is one of his most beautiful pieces of music (until the shrieking female vocal destroys it during the closing credits). Orca is also a very well researched flick, even if said research is now a touch dated.
The film's low-budget, low-tech approach (most of the whale footage was filmed in the pools of Marine World, and the remainder is a combination of stock footage and animatronics) makes for some dodgy transitions, but works for the most part. However one will notice a particular shot of a killer whale jumping out of the water being recycled again and again, as well as the repeated use of a few obviously looped and slowed down bits of stock footage used to make the Orca seem as though he is "staring down" Nolan. Were some of these bits used more judiciously, the results may have been a bit less hokey, but what's done is done.
Paramount releases Orca on DVD with a gorgeous widescreen transfer, and Dolby Digital sound. The only extra to speak of is the subtitles option, but this is one of the studio's bargain priced disc, and one doubts there's much by way of extra material floating around out there. The fact that most of the cast is now deceased would also make it rather difficult to assemble any retrospective stuff of any substance (unless viewers are just dying to know what Robert Carradine thought about being eaten by a Killer Whale or want listen to Bo Derek ruminate on her three spoken lines. In that case, I suggest you simply call them on the phone. I doubt they're doing anything).
Orca is a fun flick and a guilty pleasure of mine. I vaguely remember seeing this film as a child, paired up with Jaws, at the drive-in, and it became a staple of late night movie fests throughout my youth. While it's not much when compared to the film that inspired it, that's not really a fair criteria by which to judge Orca. Jaws is simply one of the best films of all time, and Orca is...well, Orca. It's a fun, oftentimes silly, yet undeniably entertaining slice of man vs. nature goodness that is sure to please on a lazy Sunday afternoon.