Cinema: The Shallows

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What if Herman Melville had been a screenwriter in the age of Jaws? Would it have occurred to him to give Ahab's sense of injury and obsession with revenge to the whale, to put the moral and psychological shoe on the other flipper? And if he had had the temerity to shop so weird a concept around town, would some producer have had the common sense to tell him, "Back to the custom house, Herman"?

Probably not, for the analogy be tween killer whale and great white shark is just too tempting — they are both big, strong and mysterious, therefore scary to landlubbers. Television documenta ries have taught us that the whale has a complex language and, since he may also be monogamous, perhaps a human like emotional life. It is easy, therefore, to anthropomorphize the whale and then cobble up the kind of plot line that runs sluggishly through Orca.

Richard Harris is introduced as a dumb fisherman intent on collecting specimens of marine life for sale to aquariums. In the course of his work, he carelessly kills a female whale who is pregnant. This turns her mate into a psychopath of the seas, lurking around the harbor of the fishing village where Harris does his brooding. Orca is soon wreaking much colorful havoc on the townspeople and their works. In the end Harris is forced to put to sea and fight like a fish — er, man.

Rubber Whale. Charlotte Rampling is on hand as one of those movie scientists whose precise discipline is unexplained but whose function is to ex plain — and explain — to the less enlightened that they must not underestimate the wit and sensitivity of the animal kingdom. This is a big mistake. Melville — even Peter Benchley — understood that it is best not to humanize the creatures of the deep too much. They are more frightening if perceived as imponderable forces.

The moviemakers have thumbed heavily through the literature of the sea in their search for dramatic cliches.

Technically, the film is inept — suspenselessly shot, each resort to the special-effects man visible. In closeup, Orca has a very rubbery look, but perhaps no more so than his human costars, come to think of it