A mesmerizing psychological thriller with a bruised and battered killer whale at its center, “Blackfish” goes even further than 2008’s Oscar-winning “The Cove” to launch a direct attack on Sea World and the practice of keeping marine mammals in captivity. Righteous, captivating and entirely successful as single-issue-focused documentaries go, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film draws on startling video footage and testimonies from former orca trainers, building an authoritative argument on behalf of this majestic species. Magnolia and CNN Films have a powerful educational tool on their hands, and would do well to push it into appropriate science-friendly venues beyond theatrical and cable play.
The protagonist of “Blackfish” is Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca that has caused the deaths of three people in his 20-odd years as a theme-park attraction. The most recent victim was Dawn Brancheau, an experienced Sea World trainer whose February 2010 death is presented as a human tragedy that could have been prevented only by not subjecting the whale to the cruelty of confinement in the first place.
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Cowperthwaite interviews numerous ex-trainers who speak with deep affection about the whales they’ve worked with, yet also visible guilt and profound conviction about having helped exploit them for human entertainment. Another key source is whale researcher-activist Howard Garrett, who not only helps debunk the Sea World-endorsed notion that killer whales live longer in captivity than they do in their proper habitat, but also advances his expert view of orcas as naturally friendly, highly emotional creatures that need the freedom of the open seas (tellingly, they’ve never been known to attack humans in the wild).
The film then builds a compelling psychological profile of Tilikum, who, after being captured in 1983, was held at a now-defunct Canadian theme park called Sealand of the Pacific. There, he was subjected to uniquely abusive training techniques and frequently “raked,” or attacked, by two older female whales in his tank (the grisly evidence of which is plain to see in the closeup footage presented here). Tilikum’s first human victim was a young Sealand trainer, Keltie Byrne, who slipped into the tank, was attacked by the three whales, and eventually drowned.
Tilikum was transferred to Sea World Orlando in 1992, and the film suggests not only that his traumas and anxieties followed him there, but also that the park failed to conduct a proper inquiry into the violent history of its prize acquisition. Unsurprisingly, no Sea World representatives were willing to be interviewed by Cowperthwaite, and the impression the film leaves is of a deep-pocketed institution that, for all its claims of humane and professional treatment, tolerates practices that are fundamentally at odds with the animals’ well-being and refuses to accept any portion of responsibility.
Even when an ex-trainer describes a mother orca’s piercing, otherworldly scream (simulated on the soundtrack) when she’s separated from her young by park officials, there’s no sense of a naive anthropomorphic impulse or overriding emotional appeal here. The moral against captivity hinges not, as it does in “The Cove,” on an exalted view of a particular species, but rather on the disquieting consequences of messing with Mother Nature.
These ramifications are dealt with at length in the film’s numerous videoclips of trainers falling, slipping or being pulled into the tank with less-than-welcoming orcas, which typically respond by dragging the thrashing intruder underwater, sometimes for minutes at a time. The results of these skirmishes are usually non-fatal but terrifying nonetheless, not unlike a string of animal-attack videos on YouTube. Footage of events preceding and following Brancheau’s death is replayed and carefully analyzed, from Tilikum’s mental state that day to Sea World’s subsequent attempts at damage control by deflecting the blame onto the trainer herself.
The roughness of the footage aside, “Blackfish” is expertly shot and edited, with a Jeff Beal score that suggests both ominious urgency and natural wonder.