1977's "Orca", starring Richard Harris (Gladiator, Harry Potter), is one of the more difficult films I believe I've ever tried to categorize. Also, I'm uncertain exactly how to rate it, given that it stirs up a number of mixed emotions.
"Orca" tells the story of Captain Nolan (Harris), a fisherman who is trying to set himself up for a financial windfall (and thus pay off the mortgage on his boat) by capturing a Great White Shark and selling it to an aquarium. When two divers become involved, the situation nearly leads to tragedy; however, a killer whale intervenes, killing the shark and firing the imagination of Captain Nolan. Enlisting the unwitting aid of a female marine biologist named Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), Nolan decides to change course and pursue the capture and sale of a killer whale. The capture attempt is a dismal failure. In the process, a male Orca is wounded, its mate is killed, and the female's unborn calf gruesomely miscarries on the deck of Nolan's ship, "Bumpo".
By this time in the film, we've already sat through a crash-course on killer whales, most notably two ideas: 1) killer whales may have an intelligence level on par with man's, and 2) killer whales are vengeful creatures. These ideas, combined with Captain Nolan's unintentional killing of the female whale and her calf, set us up for the main body of the film, which concerns itself with the male Orca doing whatever it can to lure Nolan back to sea for a final confrontation.
Many people seem to feel that "Orca" is a "Jaws" rip-off, and while it may have been made to capitalize on the success of "Jaws", I don't see it as a true rip-off. For one thing, other than the story of a fisherman challenging a powerful animal at sea, "Orca" doesn't really follow the pattern set by "Jaws", and emulated countless times since in lesser films. In "Jaws", a Great White Shark simply shows up in New England waters one day and embarks on a killing spree, leading to the film's climactic hunt for the animal. There is no explanation for the shark's actions save for animal instinct, and while powerful, the shark is not portrayed as intelligent; nor do we feel any sympathy for the animal. True "Jaws" rip-off films merely change the animal in the title role (or not, in the more blatant examples), substitute another location and a different cast, and supply a different ending. See "Tentacles", "Piranha", "Night of the Grizzly", "Kingdom of the Spiders", etc.
"Orca", on the other hand, doesn't truly emulate the pattern of any of these films. The Orca has a reason for its actions, displays intelligent manipulation to get what it wants, and is somewhat sympathetic. For a true comparison to another film, try reversing the plot elements of "Moby Dick". With a few tweaks, you basically get "Orca". In fact, as opposed to being a rip-off, I'd argue that "Orca" is a rather unique film. It's a revenge story with an animal in the lead, and I don't believe I've ever seen another example of that.
As for the film in terms of production, I wouldn't say that "Orca" is an awful film, but it certainly tries to be more than what it ultimately becomes, and thus may seem worse than it is. I enjoy watching it myself, but I hesitate to recommend it to others.
Richard Harris is a surprisingly complex Nolan. He doesn't always react as you'd expect him to, and thus rises above the one-dimensional range this role could easily have been for him. Charlotte Rampling plays a cool-headed intellectual type who doesn't know whether to love Nolan or hate him, so she settles for something in between. Her acting isn't the most inspired, but it's adequate to what she's asked to do here. She could be called wooden, I suppose, but most cool-headed intellectuals seem that way in real life. Admittedly, the rest of the cast, with the exception of Will Sampson as Umilak, are display material. Bo Derek is very attractive, but looking simultaneously attractive and helpless is really all she's asked to do here.
The best aspects of "Orca" are its rich photography and Ennio Morricone's mournfully haunting score. Both are absolutely beautiful. The film is a viewing and listening pleasure. Michael Anderson's direction is also quite good. There were a few scenes that appear to have been cut (for time, perhaps), but other than that the flow is very good and the chosen shots work well.
The storyline is "Orca's" weakest point. The idea of a killer whale trying to avenge the death of its mate is workable, but some of the Orca's feats in this film are unintentionally amusing. The dockside fire scene is definitely the most over-the-top of all, as others here have already pointed out; and the Orca signaling to Nolan to follow is probably the runner-up, at least for me. Some stock aquarium footage also got annoying.
The recent "Orca" DVD release has no extras, but does feature a beautiful transfer and excellent sound. I can understand why they didn't go to too much expense with "Orca", but it would have been nice to at least get a trailer.
Bottom line: Unbelievable storyline, but surprisingly well-made and likable. This may be the best "bad" film I've ever seen.
Rating: 5 out of 10