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Film / Orca: The Killer Whale

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"Find a fish tougher and more terrible than the great white."
Dino de Laurentiis to the producer Luciano Vincenzoni, after seeing Jaws

Orca: The Killer Whale is a 1977 horror film starring Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Bo Derek, Keenan Wynn, and Robert Carradine, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and released by Paramount during the "When Animals Attack" phase set in motion by the success of Jaws two years earlier.

A hunter squares off against a killer whale seeking vengeance for the death of its mate.

For tropes on its Novelization, see Orca: The Killer Whale.

The film provides the following tropes:

  • Advertised Extra: Keenan Wynn is billed fifth, yet his character, Gus Novak, doesn't even survive the first reel.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: If you interpret the orca as the villain, seeing how it does have a very sympathetic motive, and it ends up killing itself in the end.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Although the general assumption is that the Orca drowns himself under the ice, we never see this, so it's entirely possible that he's simply swimming away.
  • An Arm and a Leg: The whale bites off Annie's (Bo Derek's) already injured leg and is shown sadistically swimming off with it like a dog with a fresh rawhide bone.
  • Animal Nemesis: The orca relentlessly pursues Nolan because the latter is responsible for the death of its family; Nolan himself eventually goes Captain Ahab on the orca due to pressure from the townspeople and the fact that it has begun maiming/killing his crew members.
  • Anti-Villain: The orca is simply acting out after his mate and child were killed.
  • Artistic License – Biology:
    • While the script keeps referring to the titular orca as a male, close-ups of its underside reveal that it's clearly female. This would actually make more sense than the alternative, as orca males are promiscuous and have nothing to do with their mates after copulation, but a sister or daughter will fight to protect an endangered pod member, and might plausibly carry a grudge.
    • The main orca roars like a dinosaur from an old movie, instead of using clicks and whistles to communicate.
    • While orcas and other whales are famous for nudging objects they find curious, outright ramming them (especially at the frequency seen in the film) would still give them lethal concussions. Captive orcas, for example, have killed themselves from repeatedly ramming into their tanks.
    • Bo Derek's character loses a leg, and it's several minutes later before help arrives. She should have bled out from severing the femoral artery. This may be due to a script rewrite, however, as the actual attack scene has her motionless afterward (with Nolan looking away instead of trying to stop the bleeding, then leaving her side to threaten the orca). It's only later that Nolan mentions she's crippled, not killed.
    • It is constantly repeated that orcas are intelligent, and they are known to be so in Real Life. However, many actions of the orca in this film - starting and exploiting a peer pressure to get Nolan to fight himself, crippling the town's economy by destroying the fishing business it's dependent on, or setting a fire to a refinery - would require not merely intelligence, but a very different thing, knowledge.
    • Rachel, a marine biologist with a PhD who has written at least one book on cetaceans, repeatedly refers to the orca as Orca orcinus. Even a cursory look at a book on sea life will tell you it's the other way around.
  • Artistic License – Law: The local fishermen are unwilling to kill the orca in the bay, fearing serious legal consequences. Orcas were not a protected species in The '70s, and anyway, they would be legally justified in killing an animal that threatens to collapse the local fishing-dependent economy and causes human deaths.
  • Award-Bait Song: "We Are One" by Carol Connors hasn't held up well over the years. As oversung as it was, it was by Ennio Morricone, and it still qualifies as a guilty pleasure to some. The actual song itself might leave something to be desired, but the instrumental is another story. Carol Connors herself has stated that adding lyrics to Morricone's end titles track ruined a perfectly good piece.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: If you consider the orca to be the villain. It ultimately succeeds in avenging its mate and calf, though it does end up killing itself afterward.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: It's a whale hunter and a killer whale. What did you expect?
  • Bolivian Army Ending: We don't see the Orca drown, just several shots of it swimming under the ice as the credits role.
  • Bookends: The movie starts with the orca and his mate cavorting underwater, Happily Married and expecting a baby, on a beautiful and sunny day. It ends with the now-widowed orca swimming underwater by himself, under ice. Both sequences are accompanied by the theme song.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Nolan accidentally kills a whale's mate and their unborn calf and it's later revealed that Nolan just so happened to also lose his own wife and unborn child by accident, due to a drunk driver crashing into her car while she was on her way to the hospital.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: Nolan's appearance as he slips off the ice and beneath the surface of the water.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: When the whale finally corners Nolan, he doesn't just smash the ice flow Nolan is on and end things; he tilts it, allowing Nolan to slowly but surely slide into the freezing water, screaming in terror all the while. Then, once Nolan is in the water, the whale doesn't go right in for the kill. He instead slowly swims circles around Nolan, all as Nolan desperately tries to tread water while certainly succumbing to hypothermia, before finally sending the man flying headfirst into the ice with a blow from his tail. If that isn't Cold-Blooded Torture, at least so much as the whale is able to give, then what is?
  • Crusading Widow: The Orca is a non-human example, wanting revenge for the death of his mate.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The Orca kills Nolan rather easily in their final confrontation.
  • Dead-Hand Shot: The last we see of Umilak, after he's trapped under an avalanche of ice after the Orca deliberately rams an iceberg into the ship.
  • Dead Star Walking: Keenan Wynn, who based on name recognition, and the fact that the character, Gus Novak, is Nolan's second in command, seems set up to play a prominent role in the film. Instead, he's the first victim, and he's killed off in the film's first reel. He's even billed ahead of Robert Carradine and Peter Hooten, who make it to the third act.
  • Devious Dolphins: The titular antagonist is a violent, unnaturally aggressive killer whale. It's depicted as both intelligent and vengeful, playing into the stereotype of dolphins (which orcas are) as the animal version of an Evil Genius.
    • The "devious" part is particularly played up, with the orca having somehow reasoned that targeting the marina and the fishing business, the village's life blood, will cause the villagers to force Nolan back out to sea to drive it off.
  • Downer Ending: By the film's conclusion a town is crippled from devastation, five people are dead, a woman is left maimed for life, another woman loses the man she was beginning to fall in love with, and the whale apparently commits suicide by swimming beneath the ice and drowning itself.
  • Driven to Suicide: Although not really shown, its heavily implied that the whale drowns himself at the very end after his revenge is complete, due to being without his mate and baby.
    • Several characters also assume the female orca was trying to kill itself after being wounded by the harpoon after it shreds part of it's hide aganst the boat's propellors.
  • Dwindling Party: The Orca picks off Nolan's crew one by one until it finally kills him last with only Bedford surviving.
  • Empathic Environment: Nolan and his crew leave his sunny coast side village and travel further north until the final deadly confrontation takes place in the artic circle, surrounded by ice.
  • Eye Take: Several throughout the movie, mostly done by the orca, although there is one at the end when Nolan and the whale have one final staredown.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Notably averted in two scenes.
    • The first in which the unborn fetus slides out of the body of the orca's mate.
    • The second in which The orca bites off Bo Derek's character's leg.
      • Played straight in the edited television releases.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The female orca's screeches, which unnerve and scare Nolan for sounding similar to human screams.
  • Heroic BSoD: "Heroic" is stretching it given his actions, but protagonist Nolan is so traumatized by the deaths of the female orca, her unborn calf, and his first mate that he all but swears off ever putting out to sea again. It takes the orca destroying the village's marina, turning the residents against him, and finally, maiming Annie, for him to decide to hunt it down.
  • Heroic Dolphin: How the orca is introduced, saving Rachel's student assistant from a great white shark attack. Though it's deconstructed in fairly short order, thanks to Nolan.
  • It Can Think: The orca systematically demolishes the town (first by eating all the fish it can so the fishermen get a bad business, then destroying buildings situated on the waterfront, then blowing up a nearby refinery) to force Nolan out.
  • It's Personal:
    • Subverted- The whale's first victim is Gus, Nolan's best friend and first mate. Nolan's response to this is to stay away from the water and try to leave town (albeit at the advice of Rachel and Umilak). It's not until after Annie's disfigurement that he swears vengeance and decides to hunt the orca.
    • Played straight with the whale however, since Nolan's ship is responsible for the deaths of his mate and child.
  • "Jaws" Attack Parody: Played with in that the "Jaws" is actually systematically causing terror to the community for a purpose.
  • Moby Schtick: Played with in that the "Moby Dick" is the one out to get revenge first and finally does enough damage to what the whaler loves for him to hunt it down... just as planned.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Nolan suffers this and a not so Heroic BSoD when the female orca miscarries her calf and dies herself.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Nolan's wife and child were said to have been killed by a drunk driver. At one point he compares the orca's situation to his own experience.
    [speaking of the orca] "I'm you," he says, "you're me. You are my drunk driver."
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The Orca loses his unborn calf as well as his mate.
  • Papa Wolf: Both ways actually.
  • Pet the Dog: After killing Nolan, the Orca spares Bedford and leaves in peace.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The orca has avenged his mate and child. . .but now has nothing left, even if he doesn't drown himself.
  • Revenge: Multiple cases
    • The Orca wants revenge on Nolan and co for killing its mate and child.
    • Nolan himself wants revenge on the Orca for disfiguring Annie.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The reason the Orca is going on the warpath against the characters; Nolan accidentally killed his mate and unborn child. Notably, after it kills Nolan, it spares Bedford as she had nothing to do with his mate and child’s death.
  • Sanity Slippage: Nolan starts losing his mind over the orca. While subtle at first, it finally becomes apparent when Nolan translates the orca's speech as it saying Nolan is "his drunk driver", as if the whale would have any way of knowing Nolan lost his own wife and unborn child to one or what being drunk or driving even are. The Orca himself snaps after losing his wife and child, displaying a lot of behavior uncharacteristic of the species.
  • Shout-Out: To Moby-Dick, obviously. The Orca killing a great white shark is also a nod to Jaws, as the boat in that movie is called the Orca.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The Orca killing the a Great White isn't just The Worf Effect, as real Orcas are very much capable of killing Great Whites.
    • The Orca kills Nolan by using its tail to throw him high into the air and letting the impact do him in. This is something Orcas actually use to kill seals.
  • Snow Means Death: Ice, rather. The orca picks off Nolan's crew one by one as they venture further and further into the Artic Circle. Umilak is the second-to-last to go after the orca pushes an iceberg into the ship, after which he finally kills Nolan and then in all likelihood, himself by diving deep beneath the ice.
  • So Happy Together: The first few minutes of the movie are of the orca and his mate cavorting, establishing them as the whale equivalent of a Happily Married, soon-to-be parents couple, all before she's killed.
  • Spiritual Predecessor: To the much, much Lighter and Softer Free Willy series, the third film of which also dealt with a family of orcas endangered by a profit-seeking whaler.
  • Stock Footage: Similar to the Jaws films, stock footage was used to fill in the blanks between the animatronic killer whale effects. The same people who provided the shark stock footage in Jaws also provided the shark footage in the beginning of this film.
    • The killer whale itself was a combination of stock footage of killer whales from a marine park in California as well as animatronic effects.
  • Super-Persistent Predator: Though not for prey, rather the Orca wants revenge on the people who are responsible for the death of its mate and unborn child.
  • Take That!: The scene in which the orca kills a great white shark can be seen as one against Jaws.
    • A year later, Jaws 2 took a shot at Orca in which the great white has killed an Orca. Ironically, the scene in Orca is actually more accurate to Real Life. Killer whales have been witnessed hunting and killing great whites in the wild, and more recent studies have shown that great whites actually do tend to actively avoid areas where orcas are known to be present, even withdrawing from them completely if an orca makes a great white its prey.
    • On the other hand, killer whale populations that don't normally take sharks as prey (it depends on their geography and generational feeding habits) are known to avoid areas with large concentrations of great whites, presumably since the sharks represent a danger to their young.
  • The Thing That Would Not Leave: Harming orcas is considered taboo by the townspeople, since the whales are said to remain in the harbor until they heal and end up scaring away the fish the town relies on for their trade. In Nolan's case, the orca refuses to leave until he returns to sea where it can wreak its vengeance upon him.
  • Together in Death: Nolan and his wife and unborn child, and the Orca and his mate and unborn child, in the end.
  • Too Dumb to Live: A few deaths could have been avoided if people didn't make such stupid mistakes. Nolan insists upon fighting the whale on equal terms with 'honor', but the orca is clearly playing by entirely different rules and has no compunction targeting bystanders in their conflict.
    • The orca's pregnant mate opts to attempt suicide once it is wounded despite carrying a calf inside her instead of... attempting to free itself from the harpoon or destroy the rope the harpoon is attached to.
    • During the climax, the whale roars at Nolan with a significant part of his body out of the water for almost 20 seconds but Nolan, who has a powerful rifle pointed right at it, does not shoot which results in him being killed.
  • Too Happy to Live: The first few minutes are of the orca and his mate cavorting, establishing them as the whale equivalent of a Happily Married, soon-to-be parents couple, all before she's killed.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Sort of: the Orca rescuing one of Nolan's crew from certain death only prompts Nolan to try to capture it instead — although it was Rachel's student assistant who got rescued and he wasn't one of Nolan's crew until halfway through the film. Shortest career-change ever, too.
  • The Worf Effect: One of the first things we see the orca do is kill a great white shark. Truth in Television, Orcas are known to prey on great whites.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: In-universe; after Nolan gawks at the whale instead of shooting it while it roars for a good fifteen seconds, Rachel lets out an exasperated "Christ, just shoot!"