Grade: C
Rated PG

Orca: The Killer Whale! came out two years after Jaws and a year before the first Jaws sequel, so it would be natural to look at the poster art and assume we’re dealing with the same type of film. But they’re about as similar as a shark and a dolphin.

Jaws was a campy blend of adventure and horror tropes brought to the sea, with a storyline involving beach closings on the Fourth of July weekend and a hunt for a man-eating shark that was terrorizing swimmers. There was a logic to having a marine biologist paired with a shark hunter and the local police chief, and as the trio set off to kill the shark the film played out with the same kind of character attrition as we get in horror films—but with more character and relationship development.

Orca, meanwhile, takes itself way too seriously and tries to be a “message” film. It feels like a straight drama, intercut with sentimentalized footage of killer whales communicating. There are no jump scares typical of horror films (and Jaws), and no build-up of tension through music or any other means. It’s a fairly flat narrative boat ride from point A to point G, as in gee, this doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Set off the coast of Labrador, this 1977 film begins with footage of Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and his crew of two trying to capture a Great White Shark to sell to an aquarium. Never mind that the ship doesn’t seem equipped with a tank and support system large enough to accommodate a 10-foot shark. In this opening sequence they cross paths with two researchers studying Orcas, and as one of the researchers (Robert Carradine) falls into the ocean and looks like a goner, out of nowhere comes an orca that rams the shark and kills it. So what does Nolan do after witnessing this unselfish act from one of nature’s creatures? Naturally, he decides to reward such heroism by trying to capture the killer whale—despite being warned by lead researcher Rachel (Charlotte Rampling) that orcas mate for life and can be very vengeful if anything happens to their mate.

Yeah, we’re pretty much told the whole plot of the movie early on. Don’t expect any twists, because there aren’t any. And don’t expect any scary moments because what we get is a lot of carnage from both sides that make you wince more than jump. “Jaws” was the monster in a monster movie, but in this straight drama the orca is a victim who turns as white with anger as Moby-Dick and pursues the man who inadvertently killed his mate with the same calculated-but-mad single-mindedness of Melville’s Ahab. It’s a sad drama that plays out, not an adventurous, funny or scary one—though there are moments of peril and moments where the orca wreaks havoc on a fishing community in ways that make him look more like Rambo than Jaws. Or, given the revenge theme, Charles Bronson in Death Wish.

The big problem is that the writers and director Michael Anderson don’t pay much attention to character development or even apply logic to the paces they put their characters through. Why does a specious orca researcher go from ecological conscience to potential love interest, and what’s her purpose or function aboard the ship? Why do we have a shallow and completely unnecessary romance subplot between two crew members (Bo Derek, Peter Hooten) if it’s not going to be developed? Why does an Inuit (Will Sampson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) go from being a man who warns the captain and brings up an Inuit legend to joining the captain on what seems like an ill-fated mission? And why does the captain decide to play along with the orca, rather than run or meet him on his own terms?

Of course, no one would care about these questions or their answers if Orca followed the horror-adventure model instead of trying to make a statement about killer whales. Viewers should know what they’re getting into. Both Jaws and Orca are rated PG, but because the latter is played pretty straight it is more emotionally wrenching. I mean, at one point we see the equivalent of a killer whale stillbirth and hear piercing cries of pain from these beautiful creatures. Yes, it’s staged, but that doesn’t make it any less affecting. If your family can’t get to the beach because of Covid 19 and wants to watch other people not having fun near the water, you’re better off with Jaws.

Entire family: No (not for sensitive children)
Run time: 92 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Scream/Shout! Factory
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Amazon link
Rated PG for violence to and by animals

Language: 2/10—a handful of mild swear words and phrases

Sex: 2/10—a man and woman are seen under the covers but partially clothed and nothing shown

Violence: 8/10—an orca tries to kill herself on the moving prop of a boat, several orcas are shot or stabbed, a shark is killed, an orca bites chunks of people in the water and comes out of the water to grab people (but not too graphically), blood in the water, characters slide toward their doom, etc.; houses and boats are destroyed, and there are Michael Bay-style explosions and fireballs

Adult situations: 2/10—some smoking and drinking, but it doesn’t stand out

Takeaway: Jaws and Orca are nothing alike, though each has an underwater nemesis; for family fun, you need a film to be at least a little campy, or else it’s just a sad and depressing reality narrative