Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Orca (1977) dir. Michael Anderson

Logline: Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), an Irish-Canadian fisherman stranded in Newfoundland, decides to supplement his income by capturing a killer whale to sell to an aquarium. After a capture attempt goes horribly awry, Nolan has left a super-intelligent orca hell-bent on revenge against him for the deaths of his mate and offspring.

Animal of Choice: A killer whale with a thirst for salty vengeance.

Thinking Ecologically: Providing the DNA for Free Willy, the film espouses a clear dislike of the cruelty that results from capturing wild animals for captivity. Charlotte Rampling's marine biologist character points out the social nature of killer whales and their physiological design for constant movement through vast bodies of water, but the brutal, accidental slaughter of a female whale and her unborn calf during a capturing attempt is what clinches the inhumanity of the practice, which the more sensitive of those fishermen on board Captain Nolan's boat immediately realize. Though the film omits any representation of malicious whaling practices, allowing the viewer to witness how horrifying capture and detainment can be certainly hints at how much worse the intentional slaughter of these creatures could be while simultaneously arguing that capturing techniques are far from nonviolent.

What I found slightly more interesting was the film's insistence upon always portraying the ocean as a beautiful, majestic, and serene location. It's a curious decision to present the central location in a horror film-- the one in which the "monster" lurks-- as totally nonthreatening and idyllic at all times. Even when the whale leads Nolan's pursuing boat north to chillier, iceberg-filled waters, the dangers of the ocean itself are never stressed (though icebergs and avalanches of ice certainly are). The vision of the ocean that the film often returns to is that of a long sweeping shot over water bathed in sunlight as joyous whales breach and sing to one another in unison. Clearly the thing of nightmares.

Thinking About Animals: From the film's opening scene onward, the killer whale is establish as a superior apex predator. A few minutes in, one member of their fine species uses his accelerated swimming speed to ram into and kill a great white shark. This is not atypical killer whale behavior, but the fact that this whale killed the shark right before it was about to attack a human diver is peculiar: it establishes the orca whale as a sort of hero, a protector of human life. Moving forward, the film will continue in this direction, coloring the killer whale as a magnificent and essentially benign creature, forced into becoming a terror only through a desire for revenge brought about by human cruelty. Problematically, this motivation results in the avenging orca being characterized through overtly human attributes as the film attempts to make us sympathize (if not empathize) with the whale's predicament. Orca necessarily fudges a lot of known facts about killer whales to make this possible, the most blatant being their monogamy, which allows the murder of the avenging whale's mate and offspring to inspire a personal vendetta (one poignant sequence features the surviving whale pushing the corpse of his mate to shore as he wails in anguish).

Killer whales are quite intelligent creatures, but it's difficult to believe they're as intelligent as the film portrays: the whale in question knows to destroy every boat in harbor but Nolan's and strategically kills or maims all of his friends to coax him out of hiding. Though he seems to be supernaturally monstrous in moments like these, the whale's abandonment of his crusade against humanity after Nolan has been dealt with speaks to his single-minded focus and relief through completion of his revenge. The film answers Nolan's question of "can you commit a sin against an animal?" in the affirmative, but it's troubling (and counterproductive) that to do so it must present the animal as unmistakeably human.

Evaluation in Brief: Because of its ocean setting, Orca received a slightly more negative appraisal upon release than some of the other late '70s animal horror pictures due to its perception as an obvious theft of Spielberg's premise. While it's true that without Jaws Dino De Laurentis would never have commissioned writer/producer Luciano Vincenzoni and director Michael Anderson to make Orca, the film is nonetheless pretty far from a mere switch of a big fish for a even bigger aquatic mammal. Though the action-adventure elements are here, they're certainly less central, with the film concerning itself more with Captain Nolan's slow acceptance of his responsibility and fate. Harris gives a performance that rivals (perhaps bests) any of the main three from Jaws. Overall, Orca feels like a much more human film than most animal terror pictures, thanks in no small part to the unnaturally human characterization of its titular mammal. However flawed this portrayal of killer whales may be, it renders Orca into a film of greater interest and merit in the context of its subgenre than has previously been acknowledged.

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