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FILM / Finding the Sacred Among the Profane: Orca / Sean Woodard

Image © Paramount Pictures and Dino Dr Laurentiis Company

Image © Paramount Pictures and Dino Dr Laurentiis Company

When I was in seventh grade, I first watched Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). For the next couple of years, it became my favorite film. In addition to watching the increasingly inferior sequels, I also saw plenty of the alleged rip-offs, including Piranha (1978) and Orca (1977). Both these films still make for good drinking movies on a lazy day when you want to turn off your brain.

In retrospect, perhaps the best part of Orca is Ennio Morricone’s score; however, it’s not enough to save the film. While my recent viewings of the film have gradually become more positive, it will always remain in the shadow of its killer shark counterpart.

Star Richard Harris, who reportedly enjoyed working on the film, decried the press that Orca was a Jaws ripoff. While there are similarities to the first blockbuster, Harris’s Captain Nolan appears to only tangentially resemble Robert Shaw’s Captain Quint. Both characters are fishermen and harpooners, and share similarities to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. Both chase after their elusive enemy, face off against it, and die in the process. (If anything, Charlotte Rampling’s Dr. Rachel Bedford feels like a stand in for Richard Dreyfuss’s Matt Hooper, only substituting killer whales for sharks as her research specialty.)

While the comparisons can go on for days, what sets Orca apart from its other post-Jaws counterparts is its more serious tone. While Piranha and other eco-thrillers and creature features have a campy vibe to them, often combining horror with ill-fitting humor, Orca attempts to bring weight to its proceedings. This is perhaps seen best in the moral and spiritual dilemma that haunts Captain Nolan.

In the beginning of the film, Nolan accidentally kills the female mate of an orca while trying to capture the male. The fatal injury causes the whale to miscarry the fetus it was carrying in its womb. The male then responds with strange cries of anguish. After a fleeting moment of superstition, Nolan orders that the whale fetus be tossed overboard. This symbolic act sets in motion his rival’s quest for revenge. From this point forward, Nolan’s act of violence and the bad luck feeling brought on by the dead fetus act as a sort of albatross hanging over his head.

Following the funeral of a fellow crew member, Nolan asks the priest, “Can you commit a sin against an animal?” The priest replies, “Why, you can commit a sin against a blade of grass, Sins are really against oneself.”

When he killed the whale, he noticed that the male’s sounds of anguish resembled that of a human’s. While the film attempts to pass off psuedo-science to compare human intelligence with that of an orca (particularly its communication abilities), it at least informs the connection between the Nolan and the killer whale. At times, Rachel evens questions Nolan’s humanity, comparing him to a butcher As Nolan comes to terms with what he has done, he emphasizes with his foe. In the past, Nolan’s wife and unborn child were killed in a car crashed caused by a drunk driver. He feels that he understand’s the whale’s pain, admitting that “He loved his family . . . more than I loved mine.”

As the whale’s vendetta continues, it destroys multiple fishing boats in the harbor and nearly depletes the fish supply in the area. The locals, who are full of superstition, view these events as a bad omen and blame Nolan for bringing death to their community. Even a local Native American named Jacob Umilak (Will Sampson) speaks about how the ancient Newfoundland tribes venerated and feared the Orca.

Prior to accepting the whale’s challenge to face it one-on-one, Nolan goes walks out to the end of a pier, casting his gun aside. He explains to Rachel:

I brought this gun to shoot him. Yes, yes I did. But I knew when it came time to do it, I couldn’t do it. So I got to thinking and I thought, well if what—if what you say is right. That whales can communicate. Then I thought I’d look at him. Right in the eye. And I’d tell him the killing of his wife and his child was a terrible accident. That I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it. I’d tell him that I was sorry. I hope he’d forgive me.

The notion of Nolan internally grappling with the pain he caused another creature and his want to be forgiven recalls his conversation with the priest earlier in the film. But, as Nolan’s comment about his the whale taking better care of its family than he did, one might argue that Nolan hasn’t forgiven himself yet for the death of his own family, and that he may never do so. Furthermore, the whale may represent this grief in a tangible form for him, haunting him. However, when the whale kills more people close to him he is filled with rage.

As Nolan travels to the icy Strait of Belle Isle, along with Rachel and Jacob, to face his enemy, In facing off against the whale on a block of ice with a harpoon, he accepts his fate and that peace may not come with death. He ultimately is defeated by the orca, although it is doubtful whether the “eye-for-an-eye” revenge scheme provided any catharsis for either party.

Despite all the psuedo-science presented in the film regarding orcas at the time of its release, Orca does a fine job balancing the superstitious beliefs among the townspeople with that of the moral conflict brewing within Nolan. His conflicted character adds gravitas to the proceedings, particularly due to Richard Harris’s investment in the role. While some may argue that the film is a Jaws ripoff or an retelling of Melville’s Moby Dick, it still raises strong questions of morality that stick with the viewer.

Sean Woodard is a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University and Chapman University. Focusing on a wide variety of interests, Sean’s fiction, film criticism, and other writings have been featured in NonBinary Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Cultured Vultures, The Cost of Paper, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications. He serves as the Film Editor for Drunk Monkeys and as a co-producer of the faith-based Ordinary Grace podcast. A native of Visalia, CA, he now resides in Orange County.