Blackfish delivers ominous chills not because it documents orca whale attacks, but because it makes a clear, strong case that the attacks are of humankind’s making. It’s more Frankenstein than Jaws. Orcas are highly intelligent animals, susceptible to psychological scars, boredom, frustration and anger. The attacks didn’t spring from base animal instinct—killer whales aren’t known to attack humans in the wild—but from lives of mistreatment.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary illustrates how SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks mistreat the orcas they keep in captivity. The movie makes the case that SeaWorld keeps animals in demeaning captivity and risks the lives of ill-prepared trainers, all for entertainment dollars and whale sperm.
The film will naturally call to mind 2009’s The Cove, about Dolphin abuse in Japan. While that documentary took on the feel of a heist film by focusing on how the filmmakers covertly shot the footage, Blackfish is a more conventional assembly of interviews and archival footage. Some of that archival footage, however, is as harrowing and suspenseful as a thriller. A scene in which a whale starts behaving erratically in the middle of a routine and toys with a veteran trainer is particularly gripping.
Cowperthwaite structured Blackfish around the story of Tilikum, an orca that was captured in 1983 and later involved in incidents that caused injury and death to its trainers. Tilikum was picked on by other whales, caged in the dark and treated in ways that would be considered cruel and unusual on humans. Tilikum’s tumultuous travels serve as a compelling narrative thread, and the various stages of his life provide handy jumping-off points for elaboration and side stories.
The film features interviews with a variety of former orca trainers—who don’t all have the marine biology training you’d expect. It turns out the job qualifications aren’t too rigid. Basically, if you look nice in a swimsuit, you’re probably qualified.
The trainers nevertheless develop close relationships with the orcas, and the ones featured in the documentary became disenchanted with SeaWorld and the treatment of the animals. Many trainers have a hard time leaving because they’re worried what will happen to their whale if they leave, but no longer want to be part of the organization. A former whale hunter also appears to describe the heart-wrenching act of taking a whale from its mother. The documentary’s case is more convincing because the interview subjects didn’t go in as activists. They came around to their positions through first-hand experience with the animals.
Blackfish no doubt lacks all perspectives, but as an opinion piece that isn’t an issue, as long as it’s intellectually honest. SeaWorld declined to comment on any of the accusations in the film, which does the company no service. Cowperthwaite does attempt to bring multiple opinions to the discussion, including a trainer who isn’t against keeping whales in captivity.
Other gaps arise due to the absence of trainers who appear in archival footage and stories, leaving the commentary during some of the sequences slightly incomplete. Luckily, none of these shortcomings are deal-breakers. Blackfish proves to be an easy-to-watch, exciting film that will spark discussions about the cost of certain forms of entertainment.
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Writer: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B. Despres
Starring: Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Dean Gomersall
Release Date: July 19, 2013