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Old 09-16-2004, 07:51 AM
Scored: 7
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Orca - The Killer Whale

Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: September 15, 2004
Released by: Paramount
Release date: 9/14/2004
MSRP: $14.99
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes

Genre films all work in the same way. One film is the trendsetter, while the other films are the imitators that follow in its wake. With The Exorcist came The Omen and The Antichrist, with Halloween came Friday the 13th and Prom Night, and with Jaws came Orca. Rule of thumb is that the imitators are almost always pale reproductions of the originals, but there is always room for exception. Orca – The Killer Whale is one of the most notorious animal attack films to follow in Jaws’s wake, and thanks to Paramount it has finally been released on DVD. Is it mere imitation, or does it bring something new aboard the genre vessel?

The Story

inline Image He lives a life of leisure, free to journey with the love of his life. His wife is pregnant with his child, and she should be giving birth any day. His life is turned asunder however, when his wife is viciously murdered in front of his eyes. He lets out a cry, but it is too late. Revenge is his only option. He is Orca...The Killer Whale!

inline Image After accidentally killing the orca’s pregnant mate, Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) must deal with the anguish of separating the family forever. His own anguish is the least of his worries however, as the orca vows revenge on the murderer of his lifelong companion. The orca is an amazingly intelligent animal, and as biologist Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling) points out, has a brain even larger than that of a human. The orca is a monogamous animal, and when a loved one is separated from it, it is capable of revenge. So the orca follows Nolan back to his coastal town, and begins lurking around the harbor. Rather than attacking innocent people out of rage, the orca sends a less lethal message by sinking all of the local boats. This prompts rage amongst the townspeople, who demand that Nolan confront the killer whale and solve this quarrel once and for all.

inline Image Nolan heads out again on one final sea voyage, with Rachel, the prophetic native, Umilak (Will Sampson), and other ship hands (including a young Robert Carradine). As Nolan gets further out to sea, and more and more of his crew members fall victim to the orca’s vengeful bite, he realizes there is no turning back. He must face the angry mammal without weapon...on the orca’s terms.

inline Image Although marketed initially as a Jaws clone, with a snarling sea creature with sharp teeth gracing posters, Orca is in many ways a different and accomplished film. The largest difference between Orca and Jaws is the characterization of the titular character. In Jaws, the shark inexplicably preyed on random swimmers. There was no motive, nor logic (sharks do not attack humans unless provoked or baited by the scent of blood) to the killings, and little was done to develop the great white shark as an actual character. Orca on the other hand, presents the killer whale as a compassionate creature with a method to its madness. Significant time is spent developing the orca as a character, whether it is the beautifully scored montages by Ennio Morricone or the intriguing facts laid out by Rachel in the classroom. By the time the actual conflict between man and animal occurs, there is considerable development done to allow the viewer to invest in the orca as a serious character.

inline Image Not only is the orca given an arc as a character, but its motives and actions seem much more realistic than the great white in Jaws. The orca does not prey on swimmers or bystanders, because they have done nothing to it. It instead waits for revenge on the hunter that caused it grief. There is even a scene in the film distancing Jaws from Orca by having a killer whale attack a shark that is in the process of attacking a man overboard. The orca does not kill for mere sensory gratification; it is compassionate and protective, just like a human. Since the orca behaves with a behavioral arc similar to humans, it therefore becomes very much a protagonist with which one may identify.

inline ImageThe ambiguity surrounding character identification is also the second major difference that sets Orca apart from Jaws. In Jaws, there was no doubt that Sheriff Brody was the protagonist, and that the shark was the antagonist that needed to be destroyed. In Orca however, the relationship is not that simple, as both the orca and the captain are both flawed and admirable characters. There are no good guys and bad guys in Orca, just man and animal attempting to coexist in a cruel world. The way Orca develops the whale as a compassionate character, and the way it presents no easy dichotomy between protagonist and antagonist in many ways makes it a better film than Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking film.

inline ImageWhile Morricone’s riffs never equal the memorability of John Williams’s iconic Jaws theme, his music is much more beautiful and moving. Filled with kinetic string instruments and a romanticized female choir (both Morricone staples), the music really helps establish the orca as a sympathetic and emotional character. As moving as the orca is, credit must be given to Richard Harris’s complex and expressive performance. He fully embodies his easterner accent, and is able to accurately project the complex emotions that surface with the guilt of killing an animal. Like the orca, his personality borders between the feral and the domesticated, as his madness begins to overcome his sanity as the journey continues.

inline ImageThe other actors are not quite as memorable however, as many others register weak and distracting performances. Bo Derek had her debut in the film, and later became a star in movies like 10, but she was always famous for anything but her acting. In Orca she further demonstrates how her best assets are not her method and performance, as she botches every line she has. Will Sampson, so effective as Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a year prior, is also surprisingly monotonous as the town local. Luckily the film is about a conflict between one man and one beast, since the help in this film are anything but helpful.

In terms of composition and technical mastery, there is no doubt that Spielberg wins out over director Micharl Anderson. Orca lacks the whimsical point of view shots made famous in Jaws, or the intensity of the stalking scenes in the Jaws finale. The mechanics behind the beast in Orca are also less convincing than Jaws, as it is quite easy to differentiate when it is an animatronic and when it is a real killer whale. Yet, despite the obvious technical shortcomings of Orca compared to Jaws, it is still a film that manages to hold its own. Orca is a film that sees the conflict between man and animal from both sides, refusing to simplify either as good or evil. Since Jaws paints the shark as evil and Brody as good, there is little doubt that in the end Brody will triumph and return the town back to normalcy. Since there is no cut and dry distinction between protagonist and antagonist in Orca, the ending has more weight, since it is unclear who will triumph in the end.

While Jaws may still ultimately be the better film, Orca no doubt remains one just as interesting. Orca is a genre film that deserves respect outside of being a mere clone of Jaws. Indeed, Orca is the flipside of Jaws, presenting a sea creature of compassion and a man capable of murder. In the end, on the vast sea of genre, Orca’s little fin manages to rise above the clutter.

Image Quality

What a refreshing site this transfer is! Doomed to decades of muddy pan and scan appearances on video and television, Orca’s transfers were nearly drowned in grain and confusion. Thankfully, Paramount has finally presented the film in its original 2.35:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Seeing the film widescreen finally is blessing enough, since the actual image is a mixed bag. While saturation and color reproduction are very accurate throughout, the transfer is spotty in terms of grain. The film inconsistently fluctuates between relatively clean shots to those of intense grain, especially in the latter portions of the film in the ice fields, where grain could be confused as a snow storm. There is also a little more nicks and scratches in the print than is usual for Paramount’s older films. Despite its inconsistencies though, the transfer is for the most part satisfying. If anything, it is certainly the best Orca has looked on the home medium; the only problem is is that it still could look better.


A no frills mono track is all that is included on this disc, and it is what one would expect. Whether in mono or 5.1 surround, Morricone’s music never disappoints, and it comes through nicely on this mix. Hissing is kept to a minimum, and dialogue is clear throughout. Decent.

Supplemental Material

inline Image As per usual with Paramount’s undistinguished horror films, no insert or supplements are included on this release. It is a shame that the trailer was not included on this release, since it would be interesting to see how the film was marketed, given the fact that it came swiftly after Jaws splashed theatres in 1976.

Final Thoughts

Orca is a surprisingly compassionate and well-written film that looks at the conflicts between man and animal from both sides. Morricone’s beautiful scoring and Harris’s layered performance also help elevate the film above comparable genre fare. The transfer is uneven but overall satisfying, and the audio is plain jane. Even without any supplements though, Orca is worth seeing, especially for its cheap $14.99 list price. Fans of the fin will no doubt enjoy this alternate take on the animal attack film.


Movie - B
Image Quality - B-
Sound - B-
Supplements - N/A

Technical Info.
  • Running Time - 1 hour 32 minutes
  • Color
  • Rated PG
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Mono
  • N/A

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