Let’s take a break from the “noughties”, enough of this modern shit, let’s go back to when Jaws rip-offs were still fresh in the eyes of audiences and a new glistening opportunity for some cheap cash grabs to exploit. So of course Dino De Laurentis was involved, may he rest in peace but damn he know when to jump on a bandwagon, even if this time we’re not talking giant apes.
And the story behind Orca The Killer Whale is indeed fairly simple in terms in conception, as Dino De Laurentiis saw the incredible success of Jaws, and wanted to quickly put together a similar film, though it wanted to upstage Jaws by having the title killer animal being even more ferocious and powerful, so he did really got suggested to make it about an orca, since they notoriously hunt sharks. And they are also quite stinky, if some orca-themed vtubers are to be believed.
Then again, how many movies marketed to exploit Jaws’ popularity have the Paramount Logo at the start, are directed by Micheal Anderson (Logan’s Run, The Dam Busters, Around The World In 80 Days), AND feature a score by Ennio Morricone?
I can understand the marketing appeal, after all Metal Slug teached us that orcas even eat cyborgs, and are pretty cool overall for a killer animal, especially since they’re intelligent, and have a penchant for cruelty and – as the marketing slogan touted – revenge, since they do hold onto grudges and can recognize a member of its species among others.
You know, oddly enough this isn’t the Jaws rip-off it may seem, as it becomes obvious when we actually see what the story is about, as in a male orca tracking down and seeking revenge on a boat captain that accidentally killed his female partner, pregnant with their unborn calf.
So it’s not an actual rip off, not even an “early prototype” of sorts for Jaws 4: The Revenge, it’s more like a reverse-Moby Dick style story, as the captain just wanted to capture the orca, he truly regrets its actions, wants to forget about it, but he’s forced to confront the animal that he eventually becomes obsessed and forced to reckon with, stirred on by the fishing village that suffers heavy damage due to the orca’s attacks and wants the situation dealt with before it get worse.
It’s actually a lot like Namu The Killer Whale, released in 1966, which has basically the same story beats but it goes more into Free Willy territory, decades before that movie was ever made.
Honestly it doesn’t really share much similarities with Jaws, aside from the killer animals being acquatic creatures and surface stuff like having a character that’s clearly it’s supposed to evoke Quint (despite not serving as a stand-in or serving a similar purpose in context, at all)….this is a fairly different deal overall, a lot more than you’re led to think by face value and marketing.
For example, the shark in Jaws wasn’t a character, but more a force of nature, instrumental but not the sole focus of the plot that still revolves around him, while here the orca it’s a character in itself, it’s not just a hungry animal with an appettite, here it matters why the creature does things, and it’s mostly played quite well, with the cetologist narrating over some sequences and inquiring in how much of what she speculated about the orca’s intelligence could be true or were just assumptions based on the creature’s intelligence leading to expect human behaviour traits in them as well.
Though that is undermined by how the script makes the whale “evil”, to the point there’s a scene where the orca does an “indirect Godzilla” on a fuel reserve by headbutting some pipes and builiding, leading to explosions and implying the animal knew exactly (not “more or less”) what it was doing, since it celebrates by doing a mid-air flip-offing. YEP.
To say nothing of other later scenes where the movie DOES try to ape Jaws directly, making the claims of this being a rip-off less incorrect, and i understand most audiences wouldn’t be satisfied if “something did not happen at all”, but it’s a cop out in terms of writing, there to please general audiences, regardless of any tonal whiplash in a movie that takes itself very seriously as a thriller.
Also, the scene of the female orce miscarrying and the orca fetus are surprisingly effective, excruciating and revolting, way more than some horror movies heavy on gore in their entirety, one scene you absolutely won’t forget i can assure you!
Still, it’s a shame Orca is often summarily liquidated as one of the many Jaws rip-offs, i think it’s seriously underrated, because the marketing did pull a sort of bait and switch (pun mildly intended), promising a Jaws-rip off but actually delivering a surprisingly enthralling movie that has far more in common with Moby Dick, just happens to have a killer sea creature as the title “monster” (an orca instead of a great white), but it’s a heavily character driven tragedy about death and grief more than anything else, which also has the creature as a proper character in the story.
Sadly the script kinda feels forced to ape that other movie at the cost of odd tone shifts, but even so, Orca it’s quite interesting, the Ennio Morricone score in itself it’s almost worth the watch, the cast it’s really damn good, as it features Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, and Richard Harris as the lead, giving a great damn performance afor a movie conceived to mooch off Jaw’s success.
It’s got high production values too, so yeah, i’d dare say this is one of those “surprise finds” that make it worth slogging through dozens of actual rip-offs of popular movies. A bit flawed, as it’s far better when it doesn’t try to emulate Jaws, but overall quite decent and definitely more sophisticated than one would expect, one worth (re)discovering, especially if you have a Blu-Ray player capable of reading Region A discs, since Scream Factory released a better looking version in 2020.