Oh, Jaws. Such a great movie, such a groundbreaking moneymaker, such a watershed moment in Steven Spielberg’s career. Also: such a fruitful source of knockoffs.
Last year I did a complete review series on the Jaws movies, every last one of them, and came to a new appreciation of just how difficult it is to make a movie that captures what made Jaws so damned good. Sure, the story of a deadly shark terrorizing the coastline of a small New England community is compelling, but the real meat of Jaws‘ success came in the form of a supremely talented cast, a likewise gifted filmmaker and a screenplay that carefully balanced finely drawn characters against a thriller backdrop. It would have been so, so easy to craft something that was a parody of itself — much like the source novel, though I won’t go into that here — but Spielberg and company created an amazing film, the likes of which has never been equaled, though plenty have tried.
Last year I also reviewed Grizzly, one of those attempts to remake Jaws with just enough differences to avoid a lawsuit. That movie is pretty terrible, as you can probably imagine, but its audacity gives it a strange sort of watchability. I actually have my TiVo programmed to record Grizzly again, should it show, because for some reason I want to take the ride over again. Maybe Grizzly could be accurately termed a “guilty pleasure.” I suppose I’d have to hear from more like-minded people before I can bestow that title.
At any rate, Jaws was a monster hit and other studios and moviemakers wanted desperately to capture some of that box office gold. What interests me most about these attempts is that they do a commendable job of replicating some small part of Jaws‘ goodness, but manage to horribly misinterpret the rest of the film, resulting in shaky “homage” like Grizzly or, worse, a deeply pretentious and unpleasant movie like Orca.
Imagine, if you will, a version of Jaws that did not star Roy Scheider or Richard Dreyfuss, but instead focused entirely on Robert Shaw as the maniacal fisherman, Quint. Imagine further that Quint had no hidden humanity as he did in that movie, but was instead as bullheaded and borderline stupid as he initially appeared to be. Got that picture in your head? You are now imagining the lead character of Orca, Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), a bone-stupid and generally unpleasant fisherman whose shortsightedness and ignorance leads to several tragic deaths.
Orca is not a fun movie to watch by any means. In it, Nolan has his eyes set on making some major catch he can sell to an aquarium, and after a failed attempt to bag a Great White — shades of Jaws, anyone? — he manages to snare a pregnant orca, or killer whale. The capture is bloody and violent and during the especially cruel process the orca spontaneously aborts, dumping a hideous fetus on deck, before dying of its wounds. Nolan’s crew is appropriately disgusted, but the most important witness is the orca’s mate, swimming nearby. He has seen everything, and as the film tells us over and over and over again, orcas are highly intelligent creatures with human reasoning skills who use their big brains to plot revenge murders. I am not kidding about this.
Look, in Jaws the shark was supposed to be particularly crafty and hard to kill and that was perfectly fine in small doses, but Orca takes this plot point to an illogical extreme. The surviving orca is not only smart, he’s brilliant, and he has knowledge of things no sea-bound animal should, all of which he employs in his quest for vengeance. To give you an example: at one point the orca, which has tracked Nolan to a seaside village where he lives when he’s not fishing, manages to sabotage a fuel line at the docks and blow the whole place up. This presumes that the orca not only knows what diesel fuel is, but also how it’s transported, how the pipes can be sabotaged, how a fire gets started and what would happen if the fire raged out of control. This goes light years beyond Jaws, which proclaimed the shark smart for swimming under the boat while it’s on a line. And this will not be the first or last time the orca demonstrates this level of knowledge.
So we’ve firmly established that the movie does not care one whit about realism. Okay, that may not necessarily be a deal-killer, as Grizzly wasn’t exactly a nature documentary. But even so, a film that’s trying to create a hyper-real environment had better have equally vivid characters to match, and this is where Orca falls down badly.
I’ve already told you that Harris’ Nolan is a jerk and a fool with no real redeeming qualities, so you know where we stand on that matter. At the same time, Nolan is surrounded by nonentities who barely merit names, let alone motivations or subplots. Bo Derek appears in this film and her entire purpose seems to be to look pretty, sustain a terrible injury and then die. Spoiler alert. I couldn’t even remember what she was called while I was watching the movie, let alone now that I’m writing a review some weeks later. She makes precisely no impact, as does her all-but-nameless boyfriend and the crusty old sea dog played by Keenan Wynn who exits the picture far too soon.
Orca gets downright insulting to the audience when it comes to the character played by Charlotte Rampling. She’s a biologist who exists only to feed us wildly inaccurate information about orcas and to be the romantic interest of Nolan in what is probably the most uncomfortable subplot of the movie. Rampling is not a warm actress at the best of times and she’s especially cold here, though given her meager justification for being in the picture, I can imagine she wasn’t too thrilled about anything but the paycheck.
The movie tries for some kind of profundity in the final act, when Nolan goes on a quest to face the orca one-on-one in the icy north, but it’s completely ineffective thanks to the fact that we hate Nolan and are actively rooting for the orca at this point. It’s just one last, interminable sequence to get through before the credits roll.
Orca and Grizzly were far from the only Jaws-alikes released in the late ’70s, and maybe I’ll get around to watching them all and reviewing them here. If you’re thinking about doing the same, let me warn you well away from Orca and direct you to Grizzly. The latter movie can be fun when viewed the right away. Orca on the other hand… let it sink to the bottom of the ocean.