Review: 'Blackfish'


It's not surprising to find out that SeaWorld is the worst place in the universe. But it is horrifying to discover exactly what's going on behind their blue-and-white walls. In Blackfish, the new documentary from writer-director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and CNN Films, we're treated to a glimpse of how those splish-splashing orca whales respond after being ripped from their natural habitat in the ocean and delivered to Shamu Stadium. And, surprise surprise, it's not pleasant for any of the non-humans involved.

The film's protagonist-slash-villain is Tilikum, a male killer whale who apparently has genetic ties to almost every young whale in the aquatic organization. He's a massive creature (clocking in at over 12,000 pounds) who's delighted paying guests for years at SeaWorld Orlando. He's also directly responsible for the deaths of three people, including a 40-year-old trainer at the park in 2010.

He's a living monster, but what Blackfish tries to explain is -- despite their names -- these whales aren't killing machines. In fact, an orca has apparently never attacked a human being in the wild.

Captivity is what drives these animals insane. They're very intelligent, not to mention emotional, and being separated from their families and friends to live out their days in a small watery prison eventually pushes them to the point of inescapable frustration.

That frustration is occasionally unleashed on the committed trainers who interact with them everyday. Unfortunately, because the whales weigh several tons, that leads to the tragic deaths of more than a few human beings.

And it also means that the aquatic parks that house these animals, in their infinite wisdom, try to pass the buck. No one wants to admit that the orcas are being treated poorly; that would cause stuffed animals sales to drop at least 25%. So every death is labeled an accident, or an unfortunate turn of  events.

No matter your feelings on the politics related to this issue (and Blackfish pretty obviously takes a side), it's impossible to ignore that killer whales are smart, caring animals. They love each other, and suffer greatly when the ones they love are taken away. Couple that with extreme strength and a short fuse, and you can see why incidents keep occurring. Especially when no one wants to admit what the cause really is.

For now, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has gotten new safety procedures in place that ensure a physical barrier between trainers and the whales. But the real goal appears to be the extinction of SeaWorld. Blackfish constantly replays the park's promotional videos and commercials from the late 1980s and early 1990s, reminding  us what an outdated organization they run. The people of 2013 and beyond are (god willing) aware enough to realize that whales shouldn't suffer needlessly, or be driven to murder, just to entertain some curious guests.

As one talking head notes near the end, in 50 years we'll all look back in disgust at how barbarically we treated these majestic animals. This is probably true, and it would be fitting if Blackfish kickstarts part of that process. It's a routine film from a visual and storytelling perspective, but in terms of delivering important information that grabs hold of your emotions, few documentaries can touch its raw message.