REVIEW: Blackfish

Short Review: Whoa.

When it comes to documentaries with the power to actually change their viewers’ behavior, Gasland and Super Size Me look like high school kids holding clipboards outside the Starbucks next to the brutal exposé that is Blackfish. Even The Cove, which was deliberately structured like a heist movie, can barely compete for intensity. It’s a movie that will almost certainly keep you from visiting Sea World ever again, and ironically, its biggest weapon in taking them down is the same one Sea World relies on to keep people coming — the awe-inspiring allure of the whales themselves. Nothing against Gasland or Super Size Me, but cheeseburgers and gas wells could never hope to compete with Killer Whales, visually or romantically. Few things in the world are as incredible and terrifying as watching a pod of five 15,000-pound living submarines glide in formation like fighter jets in a coordinated attack, creating a giant wave to knock a seal off an ice floe. Sea pandas they are not.

If one of those things wants you dead, you are screwed, and Blackfish is a movie that’s all about what happens when you piss one off. Killer Whales, revenge, and murder. There aren’t too many animal-rights documentaries that could be described as “metal,” but Blackfish, one part horror movie and one part nature film, fits the bill and then some.

“A whale has eaten one of the trainers,” a caller tells a 911 operator in a 2010 recording.

The call took place after an incident (to use the word in its most understated form) at Sea World Orlando involving trainer Dawn Brancheau and a whale named Tilikum. Who, according to Sea World, “did not attack Dawn,” but rather “became interested in the novelty of her ponytail.” Which would seem rather contradicted by the part of the story where Tilikum ate her arm and dragged her lifeless body around the pool for half an hour.

Brancheau turns out to have been the third person killed by Tilikum, the first being a teenage swim champion working part-time at a now-defunct park called Sealand in Victoria, BC, in 1991, and the second being a 27-year-old “drifter” named Daniel Dukes, who snuck into Tilikum’s tank at Sea World late one night in 1999 and was found the next morning naked and draped across Tilikum’s back with his genitals bitten off. Tilikum, by the way, still performs at Sea World daily.

Blackfish traces Tilikum’s story back to the beginning, when he was captured off the coast of Iceland as a pup. In interviews with some of the people who were involved in the hunt, they describe the process of herding the whales into a big ring net, then separating the calves (the small ones being easier to transport) from the mothers. At which point the adult whales, which could easily swim away and certainly would have if they were motivated only by self-preservation, stick around for hours shrieking for their babies as the captors prepare the calves for transport. The emotional gut-punch of the scene overshadows the simple logistics of trying to transport a thousand-some-pound sea creature, which are interesting in their own right. A salty old sea dog straight out of central casting (see below) who says in passing that he’s also participated in coups in South America (whoa, rewmind the tape there, pops), describes the whale capture as “the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

I’m telling you, this movie is a motherf*cker.

Not just interesting but visually inventive, it spices up the already compelling subject matter with animation to diagram some of the incidents discussed, and mixes it with transcripts of the court case between Sea World and OSHA, who sued after the Brancheau incident. But of course the most compelling parts of it are the interviews with eye witnesses to the whale attacks and relatives of the dead trainers, the footage of the whales themselves, and harrowing whale encounters caught on tape, including one incident in which one of the whales drags a trainer around by the boot of his wetsuit, with him trying to stay calm while the whale takes him just to the brink of drowning over and over until he finally gets loose.

The trainer in question never gets interviewed in the film, one of the few times in the movie a crucial source of information goes unexplored. But I doubt it was an oversight, as no one still working at Sea World was allowed to speak to the filmmakers. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite is limited to the trainers who’ve resigned and started speaking out about conditions at Sea World, but there seem to be plenty. Sea World declined to participate in the film, in what may prove to be one of the great PR screw ups of all-time (something they seem to be realizing after the fact). There are times in Blackfish you wish you could hear Sea World’s side of the story, but with them trying to pretend it didn’t exist, Cowperthwaite is left to reconstruct their official take from interviews and court transcripts, which are contradicted in virtually every case by a mountain of Cowperthwaite’s eye witnesses, scientific testimony, and undercover footage of the lies Sea World tour guides tell to park visitors. We see guides lying about the Orcas’ life spans, saying they live longer in captivity when the reverse is true, and trying to put a positive spin on certain undeniably distressing aspects of whale captivity, like the way captive males’ dorsal fins flop over all sad and flaccid, unlike the strong, straight fins of wild whales.

The best thing about Blackfish is that it has such an emotional thud without ever overplaying its hand. It’s hard to make an emotional plea against whale captivity without coming off as a zealot, and Cowperthwaite has said in interviews that that wasn’t her intention to begin with.

“There were so many things I didn’t include because they took us away from Tilikum, but they were very disturbing and could have easily loaded the film and turned it into a piece of activism — which was never my intent,” she says.

Her approach comes through in the final product, and thus we sort of go on this journey with her, where we start with a murder mystery and end with a corporation that seems to be trying to cover it up. I could go on, but the long and short of it is, there isn’t much about Blackfish that isn’t endlessly watchable. Orcas have an ominous look on a good day, and Blackfish shows us way more than just the good days.


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