Saturday, December 29, 2007

Academy of the Underrated: Orca

The holidays turned out to be pretty busy, so I've not been able to put up any seasonal content. I hope you all enjoyed whatever you saw fit to celebrate, and hope you'll join us for the coming New Year. (And I think that the Christmas haul will lead to quite a few upcoming posts.) Anyway, time to follow up on what I promised last post and have a new Academy induction.

It is a deeply held belief of mine that any premise, approached with the proper conviction, can make for a great movie. ORCA is not quite proof of this, as it is not a great movie, but given the goofy premise and several technical limitations, it’s surprisingly enjoyable. Notorious movie maven Dino De Laurentiis- the man behind some of the most profound and most schlocky movies in cinema history- may have ordered up a simple JAWS ripoff, and the results are often judged on those terms, but the film is not only fairly original but sad and passionate, not to mention an example of another axiom, that a good score can cover any number of flaws. I like this movie quite a bit more than it warrants, but I think there’s some legitimate value here as well.

Richard Harris stars as Nolan, captain of a small fishing boat trying to pay off a mortgage. While hunting for a great white, he runs across Rachel, an alluring marine biologist played by Charlotte Rampling, and sees his quarry on the losing end of a fight with a killer whale, or “orca” as they are sometimes called. Orcas are Rachel’s area of expertise, and Nolan attends a few of her lectures before going off to capture one of these animals to sell to an aquarium for half a million bucks. Rachel warns Nolan not to try this, for a number of reasons, but he presses on ahead. But it all goes awry; Nolan aims
for a male, but hits his mate, who half-kills herself trying to escape from the harpoon before finally being hauled aboard and bloodily miscarrying her unborn fetus. (It’s a fairly horrifying sequence, albeit also a cheap shock.) The male witnesses all of this, and is able to identify Nolan as his mate’s killer. He kills one of the ship’s crew as it heads back to port, and terrorizes the town of South Harbor in an attempt to lure Nolan out to sea for a final vengeful confrontation.

Now, as far as anyone can tell, killer whales don’t do this. At the time the film was made there didn’t seem to be any record at all of a killer whale ever attacking a human being deliberately, and though I think I’ve heard of a couple of cases since, they don’t make a habit of it. Even if one decided to attack a person, they’d not likely go about it as intelligently as this one does; this orca sinks all the boats in a harbor except Nolan’s, destroys gasoline lines to cause a massive explosion at the refinery, and even works out where Nolan and his crew are living. The film makes a big deal out of the supposed intelligence of the killer whale, suggesting it’s actually superior to man’s, particularly in one of Rachel’s lectures which also rather curiously stresses the creature’s “profound instinct for vengeance.” It’s all a bit much to swallow- the film makes it seem as though orcas would dominate the world if only they had opposable thumbs- but then, Charlotte Rampling almost makes it believable. And it’s not like JAWS is a portrait of accuracy either, though its errors are what everyone actually thought was true at the time. (I can’t speak on the state of killer whale research in 1977.) Still, the film’s asking us to make some assumptions that don’t quite line up with reality, much in the way that DOUBLE JEOPARDY asked us to believe the legal system would let you commit murder on a technicality. This level of suspension of disbelief was understandably too much for a lot of people.

But the film works for it, to be sure. Apart from Ms. Rampling’s persuasiveness, the film also takes care to present the proceedings in a very serious manner. This is not a campy monster film, at least not with the same self-effacing tone that characterized other JAWS cash-ins like ALLIGATOR and Joe Dante’s PIRANHA. The story presents itself with the gravitas of a classical tragedy (and the similarities to MOBY DICK aren’t exactly subtle either.) One very interesting thing that the film does is that it makes the whale into a character more than a movie monster; a number of scenes actually seem to take place from its perspective, and though Rachel insists that we can’t really understand how a creature like this thinks, it acts with all the motivation of a bereaved husband and father. The filmmakers relied on the performance of a live killer whale as much as possible- obviously you can’t take them on location, and the use of a prop whale in some shots is fairly obvious (as is the superimposition of the whale on location plates in others), but there are moments where the illusion is quite effective, and the orca definitely takes on a personality of its own. It helps that, though we’re used to Shamu and the friendly captive killer whales of Sea World and related aquariums, these can be genuinely vicious bastards in the open water- human attacks are rare, but watch one of these go to town on a herd of seals sometime (not to mention that the bit about one of them being able to kill a great white is, in fact, true.)

All of this might add up to a slightly better-than-usual exploitation film were it not for the film’s trumpt card; a score by veteran composer Ennio Morricone, generally one of the best people ever to write music for film and not someone to take an assignment lightly just because it’s for a B-movie. Morricone’s chief contribution to the film is a gorgeous nautical dirge, a piece that instantly conveys beauty, tragedy, and the romance of the sea and highlights some strangely lyrical montages, such as an astoundingly good scene where the vengeful orca pushes his dying mate to shore in a macabre funeral procession. Of course, even the score is marred somewhat by a truly dreadful vocal accompaniment during the end credits, so you may want to hit stop just as soon as it sets in. I spent many a year longing for the soundtrack before finally tracking it down thanks to a probably long-defunct horror movie board, and to he who gave me that link, I still owe you my firstborn. We’ll talk.

The acting helps too. Richard Harris was going through one of his heavier drinking periods when he shot this (and who can blame him?), but his performance holds up very well; Nolan comes across as both remorseful and glib, outwardly dismissive of people’s concerns but haunted by the reality of what he’s done. Charlotte Rampling, possessed of an eerie reptilian sexiness (there’s a shot wherein she simultaneously looks like a gecko and is profoundly alluring), lends considerable gravitas to the whole affair, and though her character’s narration is rather obviously tacked on, I’ll take any
excuse to hear her talk. On the downside, Will Sampson, fresh from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, is stuck in one of those patronizing Seventies “wise native” roles and seems to have recorded his entire performance in ADR. On the neutral side, you have a not-yet-famous-for-taking-all-her-clothes-off Bo Derek as Annie and a ye-gods-why-was-that-hair-ever-fashionable Peter Hooten as her shipmate and lover Paul. One of the much-discussed highlights of the film is Derek getting her leg bitten off by the vengeful whale, which isn’t actually spoiling that much, but it’s an interesting scene nonetheless.

Despite all this the film still does stretch credulity at a number of points, and some of the technical shortfalls don’t help- there are obvious mattes, recycled shots, etc. At other times, however, the film is quite beautiful, with great underwater photography and some striking scenes among the Arctic ice. I haven’t been able to track down how much money this film cost, though the difficulty of shooting any film on water probably upped things a bit- it seems sloppier than it should, to be sure, and movies like this were definitely getting slicker. A certain suspension of disbelief is necessary for enjoyment, though if you’re watching a film about a vengeful killer whale, that sort of thing is really implied.

ORCA is a hard film to honestly defend, because so much on the surface is just plain silly and crude. But at heart this is an old-fashioned nautical revenge story, just a bit trashier than most, and on that level it has to be called a success. It’s not so much a question of lowering standards as it is of accepting different standards, of recognizing that we’re leagues away from realism and in more of an operatic vein. The film is beautiful and touching at the same time as it is silly, and I think the former more than makes up for the latter. There’s something here I really think is worth discovering.

Written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati
Directed by Michael Anderson
Grade: B

Give ORCA a go by buying it here, or by clicking on the picture above, or the one on the sidebar if it's still up by the time you read this. C'mon, the wolves are at ol' Gil's door!

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