by Daniel Rester
Orcinus orcas are magnificent creatures, large in size and painted with slick black and white skin. Despite being labeled as “Killer Whales,” many people see them as an always-friendly members of the oceanic dolphin family. Because they are just nice creatures to watch at parks like SeaWorld, right? Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s eye-opening doc Blackfish will have you think otherwise.
Blackfish is an expository documentary that aims to reveal more of the truth behind the treatment of orcas, especially in theme parks like SeaWorld. Cowperthwaite’s lineup of interviewees includes many former SeaWorld animal trainers, people close to OSHA, and others; SeaWorld itself reportedly declined to be interviewed. The film covers a timeline that stretches back decades, discussing various accidents and incidents and how some of the treatment of the whales hasn’t seemed to have changed.
The main focus in Blackfish is a male orca named Tilikum, who has been linked to three human deaths. The main tragedy covered is that of Dawn Brancheau, a respected trainer who died in 2010 while performing with Tilikum. While some initially thought that the tragedy occurred because of a mix-up with Brancheau’s ponytail, the film reveals that many saw Tilikum grab Brancheau’s arm and attack her. The film also dives deeper into Tilikum’s past, exploring how the whale hasn’t had a perfect track record.
While many of the former trainers admit to loving spending time with the whales, many of them now see the overall captivity of the whales at the theme parks as wrong. The film shows that the whales can possibly become frustrated in the environments, or even get picked on by other whales or have food deprivation.
Blackfish is guaranteed to stir up conversations and change views, and it works best in serving as a launching point for people to want to explore more information about the whales and their captivity. However, without the opinions of higher-ups at SeaWorld, current employees, etc., the film feels too one-sided at times by itself. It also has a certain heavy hand about it, with Jeff Beal’s music score manipulating the emotions at nearly every turn.
Cowperthwaite’s film brings up important issues, and features some impressive cinematography and editing at times, but it never hits the power level like something like, say, the similar film The Cove (2009) – which dealt with the slaying of dolphins, and had more participatory moments to add to the effect. Even so, orcas are beautiful creatures that don’t deserve to be treated in some of the ways that they get treated, and Blackfish accomplishes its goal of showing us that.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+)