Blackfish Tilikum

Blackfish Review (Film, 2013)

Blackfish Poster

The original poster was too scary for me, so here’s the happier theatrical poster.

Blackfish packs a huge wallop in under 90 minutes. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary focuses on Sea World, specifically the effects of leaving killer whales in captivity on their socialization. The star of the film is Tilikum, a killer whale who was captured at a very young age, abused by trainers and the much larger dominant female whales in the tank, and grew up to kill three separate people. Each time, the park responsible passed off the blame and obstructed investigations that would have most likely resulted in the banning of training killer whales for shows.

Cowperthwaite pulls no punches in her documentary. Blackfish is almost a snuff film. Mercifully, we’re spared the footage of actual deaths caused by whales, but everything else is shown. You see the trainers pulled into the water. You see the stunts go horribly wrong. And, most damning of all, you see Sea World (and long defunct Sea Land) pass off all blame immediately.

This is one of the more shocking documentaries to come out in a long time. The Cove, about the slaughter of dolphins in the Pacific Ocean, went with a more empathetic approach, putting human faces on the suffering of the creatures. Blackfish offers you no such salvation. This is just the facts as relayed by former trainers, experts, guests at ill-fated shows, surviving family members, news reports, and court testimony about the killer whale attacks.

Blackfish Tilikum

Meet Tilikum, the killer male killer whale who has spent most of his life in captivity

No one is questioning the role Sea World plays in the preservation of wildlife. The question is how best to care for killer whales. Most populations are not considered endangered, so there is no immediate need to use a zoo or wildlife refuge to preserve the species. States have actually banned the process of trapping whales, so it’s not even something that can readily happen in the United States. What we do know is that killer whales travel hundreds of miles each day but are kept in tanks that don’t even give them a mile of swim space.

The real hypothesis of Blackfish is simple. Forcing killer whales into tiny habitats to train them for entertainment purposes causes aggression. Sadly, that is the one thing the film cannot prove. They can show a correlation between whales like Tilikum and violence directed at trainers, but they cannot prove a direct link. It is heavily implied–one researcher insists it’s fact–but this implication that connects the film’s various evidence points is not cemented as fact. Every other point in the film has evidence, not conjecture, to validate it. It’s a good question to think on but not the “aha!” moment it’s intended to be.

This minor shortcoming does not detract from the strength of the documentary. There is a sequence in the middle of the film that is incredibly shocking because it establishes a pattern of behavior at Sea World. The trainers are not well-trained to handle contact with animals. They’re overworked and always worried about putting on a better show. The only constant in their training is that forging a bond with their killer whale is essential to their safety. The trainer, trusting the animal, is put in a situation beyond their control where the whale has an aggressive moment and pulls them under. Sea World then places 100% of the blame on the trainer in press releases, TV interviews, and court appearances so the alternate narrative of “we can’t control killer whales in captivity” can never take hold.

It is very telling that, after Blackfish made the short list for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards that Sea World issued a press release trying to deny all of the claims in the film. It’s not the first letter they’ve released, either. Gabriela Cowperthwaite had to hit on some core truth to get that kind of response from a then seldom-seen documentary.

The best documentaries cause discussion and controversy and Blackfish is no exception. It is so rare to see a fact-driven documentary move this quick and be this clear in its execution. It’s easy to understand but very hard to watch. Your heart breaks for the animals and the trainers alike. Sea World’s real focus is their bottom line, not the safety and well-being of their staff or even the animals under their care. If not feeding whales as a training technique sells a few more stuffed toys after the main show, they’re not going to change their ways without outside intervention. Blackfish might be the block that causes the whole tower to fall. Here’s hoping.

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts on Blackfish? Share them below.

You can click on this link for the original poster. It’s very reminiscent of Heath Ledger as The Joker, only with a killer whale.