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Upon seeing Jaws (1975), producers Dino De Laurentiis and Luciano Vincenzoni set out to create their own aquatic monster movie, hoping to cash-in on a new craze. The resulting motion picture, Orca (1977), was reviled by critics who compared it negatively to Spielberg’s blockbuster. But Orca isn’t the same kind of film as Jaws. Spielberg combines the pulpy sensationalism of the genre picture with the austere artistry of the auteur driven New Hollywood film whilst Orca embraces its exploitation film roots unpretentiously.

Orca takes the terror of Jaws and inserts it into the narrative framework of the grindhouse revenge flick. In an ingenious move, screenwriters Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati invert expectations by casting the titular orca as the wronged party. This creates conflicted emotions in the viewer while also casting Orca in the light of an environmentalist morality tale. The thing that makes this narrative equation so affecting is that the instigator of this revenge plot isn’t evil or malicious but rather ignorant.

At first it seems that Richard Harris’ character (Nolan) is just your average fisherman who has decided to catch an orca when his original prey was eaten by the whale. Charlotte Rampling’s scientist character (Rachel) advises Harris against this course but to no avail. At this point, with Harris and his crew (which includes Bo Derek and Keenan Wynn) out on the high seas expectations are that this hapless Irishman is going to stumble upon an inherently sinister beast.

Actually the hapless Harris stumbles upon an innocent pod of orcas and attempts to harpoon a bull but only nicks the animal, hitting the cow instead. Suddenly Ennio Morricone’s music is drowned out by the terrifying screams of the wounded whale. Harris and his crew are aghast as they watch the animal turn about franticly as the water goes red. The cries of the orca worsen still as it panics and swims into the propellors. Harris gives the order that the whale be reeled in and as it rises out of the water it pre-maturely gives birth to a calf on deck.

This is a scene of prolonged terror that is difficult to watch; yet it is the reality of whaling. The audience’s sympathies are with the whales at this point as the spectacle of butchery becomes overwhelming. The almost supernatural feats of revenge that the bull orca executes seem excusable when compared to his motivation. It takes all of these bloody acts of vengeance for Harris’ character to becomes sympathetic again and then it’s time for the showdown.

The power and unexpectedness of the inciting incident is what elevates this pulpy affair. The performances of the ensemble cast and the breathtaking special effects help legitimize and sell some of the phonier or more outlandish aspects of the plot; but the same could be said of Jaws. Unlike Jaws, Orca moves its viewer with human horrors and natural beauty in a way that is far more valuable and relevant.