Judge Jim Thomas is eyeing his goldfish nervously.
Our review of Blackfish, published November 20th, 2013, is also available.
Never capture what you can't control.
On February 24, 2010, shocking news came out of SeaWorld Orlando: Dawn Brancheau, one of SeaWorld's most experienced trainers, had been accidentally killed by Tilikum, a killer whale, during a performance. The incident spurred filmmaker Gabriele Cowperthwaite to begin a documentary; she discovered that the death was far from the isolated incident that SeaWorld would have people believe. Not only had other trainers been killed, but other people had been killed by Tilikum. The result of her search for answers is Blackfish, brought to us by Magnolia Home Entertainment.
Combining vintage footage with talking heads (most of whom are former SeaWorld trainers), Blackfish is a brilliantly assembled film. There are three narrative lines. The two secondary threads are the federal OSHA lawsuit against SeaWorld in the wake of Dawn Brancheau's death and the prevalence of orca attacks on trainers (In contrast, there is but a single documented case of someone being attacked by an orca in the wild.). Those two threads are intertwined with the primary narrative, the story of Tilikum, caught in the wild, stripped from his mother, and forced to live in a series of ridiculously small enclosures, bullied by other whales—a whale on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The three deaths associated with Tilikum are viewed in that context—the suggestion is that years of abuse (from the dominant females, not the SeaWorld trainers) and cramped quarters turned him into an accident waiting to happen. The film never goes so far is to paint Tilikum as a vengeance-seeking predator, but then again, it really doesn't have to. The thing that is often hard to appreciate is the sheer size of Tilikum. The females were generally around 16-18 feet long, but Tilikum is a staggering 22 feet long, weighing in at six tons. He literally dwarfed some of the smaller females. When you're that size, you don't have to try to be dangerous; a momentary temper tantrum can be lethal.
SeaWorld, on the other hand, doesn't come off quite so well. After Tilikum killed a trainer at a now-defunct Canadian park, SeaWorld bought him for breeding purposes, assuring the sellers that the whale would not perform. However, within a year, he was part of the show. Later, SeaWorld attempted to portray Brancheau's death as a tragic accident, even going so far as to blame her for the accident. More damningly, there appears to have been a concerted effort not just to keep word of attacks on trainers from reaching the public (which would almost be understandable from a PR perspective), but they also worked to keep the attacks from the trainers—so that the trainers never fully realized just how dangerous their jobs were.
One thing that illustrates Cowperthwaite's deft touch is that there are no condemnations—no kneejerk calls for SeaWorld to be dismantled, or calls for the destruction of Tilikum. There are a few bits with a psychiatrist concerning the impact of Tilikum's upbringing, but Cowperthwaite wisely avoids turning that into a major point—mainly because she doesn't have to. Res ipse loquitur, as they say—the evidence speaks for itself. By the time the credits roll, it's not just hard to provide a viable reason for working in such close proximity to killer whales; it's hard to justify keeping them in captivity at all.
This is probably not a disc you'll want to show to children without watching it yourself first. There is some harrowing footage, including footage of Dawn Brancheau's final performance with Tilikum, ending just moments before the attack.
Technically, the disc is good, but hardly exceptional. To an extent, that's to be expected—there's a lot of vintage footage involved, most of it shot by tourists. The audio is somewhat better—again, a lot of old sources. The new footage is impeccable, though, and Jeff Beal's score is haunting. The disc has a good set of extras, the highlight of which is the commentary track by Cowperthwaite and producer Manuel V. Oteyza—you get a lot of additional information and back story on several things covered in the feature. Overall, the track greatly enhances your understanding of the film. There are also a number of short featurettes documenting other facets of killer whale captivity.
Blackfish is a tremendously affecting film, one that allows us to witness simultaneously the charm and sweetness of these giant creatures, while reminding us that attempting to control such creatures might not be the best idea man has ever had. When the film was over, my wife looked up to me and said, "I guess SeaWorld's off the list for next year's vacation."
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