By Henry Workman
Documentaries made to advance one side of an issue use a multitude of strategies, some pretending at neutrality, others telling an overly clear-cut version of the truth, but the only ones of any worth can construct a straightforward case that considers subject matter from every major angle. The makers of Blackfish believe keeping killer whales in captivity brings a host of inherent problems, and to demonstrate why, have come up with an exhausting exposé of their target, SeaWorld, the theme park chain owning the greatest number of these animals. While running down its laundry list of shortcomings and dangerous incidents, the film rounds out its rhetoric by touching on killer whale science, from their brains to their complex social structures. Much of the running time, as one might expect, is also dedicated to emotional interviews and the passionate appeals of guilt-stricken former employees (of which there seem to be no shortage), but Blackfish is in a league apart from the sanctimonious tear-jerker—it’s an all-out horror show.
Since audiences’ familiarity with the controversy at hand will vary, the beginning portrays SeaWorld in its popular image, emphasizing professionalism as well as the supposed “bonds” between animal and trainer. A brief segment on the parks’ origins dissolves that notion well before Blackfish arrives at its main arguments, as the original whales apparently were kidnapped in infancy and kept in heinous living conditions. Subsequent revelations seem to paint SeaWorld as existing in a perpetual struggle to overcome its dark history, and the failure to do so as giving rise to a culture of denial, and vicious defensiveness within the parks’ management. One of the film’s most striking images, though it lasts just seconds, is that of a grinning animal trainer who bears a horrendous gash across the forehead—like SeaWorld, he’s got blood all over his face, and wants desperately to laugh it off.
Blackfish leads up to the 2010 fatality of expert trainer Dawn Brancheau (this being an established turning point in the debate over killer whale captivity), but, in the context of the film, it feels gratuitous. By the time Blackfish winds up here, viewers will have been waiting for the tragedy with the welling dread that anticipates overdue disaster. The details of Brancheau’s final day are preceded by countless moments of whale peevishness-turned-aggression, including hair-raising brushes with fate from SeaWorld’s past, and even other deaths—although this occurred at a different park, trainer Alexis Martinez lost his life in a brutal attack just months before Brancheau, somehow without drawing similar media attention. It’s clear a film is driving home a point when it elicits the reaction “Make it stop” before even arriving at its focus.
Still, captive animal attacks are hardly the point. These incidents are just illustrative—not of the meanness of killer whales, but of humans’ relative frailty. Here are genius, truck-sized beasts whose world has been diminished to a confined, static environment, who are forced by amicable weaklings to impress crowds in exchange for fish. The animals’ names are given, along with the type of background info documentaries sometimes use in criminal profiles. Tilikum the whale becomes a sympathetic figure, with a layered psyche affected by a traumatic past. His nature never seemed to include a murderous predisposition, and perhaps it never had to. He’s the other victim.
Blackfish, against its intentions, may even inspire some to rush to the nearest SeaWorld location for their last chance to observe killer whales up close (especially if the film plays a role in the parks’ ultimate closure). If the sketchiness of SeaWorld’s operation makes no impression, the true subject—the majestic “blackfish”—is sure to. Inspiring respect for them may be the film’s most easily achieved mission, and the one with the longest-lasting effect on the viewer. So reverent of their subject are these filmmakers, they barely can choose where to begin—with the killer whale’s revered status in world cultures, the “nomadic tribe”-like social units they form, their languages, or a hunting technique so ingenious it gives credence to the notion their intelligence approaches that of people.
Blackfish also spits out significant facts and figures so rapidly, it suggests an urgency to squeeze them all in. Before one has time to digest the information “Killer whales live twice as long in the wild,” there’s the equally disconcerting “SeaWorld cannot accommodate some mothers to live with their offspring.”
Finally, when Blackfish isn’t making a sideshow exhibit of the theme park (still with a responsible, level-headed tone), SeaWorld digs its own grave. Each embarrassment seems to have been met with publicity tactics and cover-ups, or meager, begrudging attempts to improve (SeaWorld’s defenses to the film itself can be found here). At the same time, there’s a broken-heartedness behind the condemnation, as if some part of the filmmakers still wishes this didn’t have to be said. Blackfish might jerk tears, but not just for the deceased—also for humanity. No one’s being blamed for loving animals, or wanting to be with them, study them, and keep them around for future generations to appreciate. SeaWorld has contributed to noble causes as well. That’s what makes this so sad.
Blackfish, in five words or less: “A splash of cold water.” 5 / 5
Editor’s Note: Henry reviews more than just movies on his site, The Star Scale Treatment. Be sure to check it out!
Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.