One of the most brazen things that a ripoff of a famous blockbuster can do is film a scene that functions as an obvious dig at the blockbuster in question. In most cases, it’s a kind of move that can easily backfire because it reminds the viewer of the more popular film. Perhaps the most notable example is a brief moment in the infamous Star Wars knockoff and subject of a fan-favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Laserblast where Kim Milford’s character blows up a Star Wars billboard for no readily discernible reason beyond the behind-the-scenes desire to mock any potential competition to Laserblast. One of the earliest scenes of the subject of today’s review, 1977’s Orca, shows the titular killer whale slaughtering a great white shark, which is a moment where the in-story justification of making the orca both threatening and appealing is outweighed by the out-of-universe purpose of taunting Jaws, its biggest influence. When you see it, you can almost hear co-producer Dino De Laurentiis, prolific producer of countless cult classics, screaming at the top of his lungs, “I’m coming for you, Spielberg!” With a scene like that, you’d think that Orca would simply be a cheap, simplistic duplication of a better movie. Instead, Orca has a surprisingly thoughtful approach to its storytelling and themes that sets it apart from other, less subtle Jaws ripoffs.
The biggest aspect that sets Orca apart from its competition is making the titular creature, played by Yaka and Nepo, an important and sympathetic character in his own right. The movie truly comes to life whenever the whales appear. The impressive cinematography, effective model work and Ennio Morricone’s fantastic score effectively sell the audience on the emotional plight of the chief orca and the merciless terror he creates throughout the film. The standout actor in the human cast is Richard Harris of Camelot fame, who gives a stirring performance as a ship’s captain who becomes the target of the orca’s ire but begins to understand the whale’s hunger for revenge. The rest of the cast, which includes Zardoz’s Charlotte Rampling as a whale biologist and Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) as a somewhat stereotypical Native American teacher, is adequate with the weakest link being a young Bo Derek, best known for her role in 10, who looks lost in any scene that doesn’t involve a killer whale. Orca is directed by The Dam Busters helmer Michael Anderson, who tries his best to make a threadbare script, written by Sergio Donati and co-producer Luciano Vincenzoni, feel tense, believable and meaningful by focusing on both the captain’s personal conflict and the orca’s quest for retribution, as well as placing a strong emphasis on visual storytelling.
Orca is a much more intriguing film than its reputation implies. By putting a spotlight on the thoughts and feelings of the eponymous creature, the film finds a different angle that enables it to stand out in the Jawsploitation craze.
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