Film Review: Blackfish

The killer whale, one of nature’s most glorious creations for its sheer size, intelligence and emotional depth, is front and center here, along with the horror of its captivity.

Animals in captivity have seemed to be a necessary evil since the beginning of civilization, but, especially after seeing Blackfish, one may well question the very existence of menageries of any type. Gabriela Cowperthwaite‘s highly important documentary trains an unwavering eye upon killer whales and the havoc created by their exploitation as marine-park attractions.

Native American fisherman bestowed the name “blackfish” on them, with wondering awe at their power and deep, intelligent sensitivity, but although they may sell tourist tickets, today they command less respect. Heartbreakingly captured and taken from their mothers at an early age, to the accompaniment of said parents’ wrenchingly real screams of anguish, the psychological trauma runs deep from the very beginning. One fisherman tearfully recalls his involvement as “one of the worst things I’ve ever done.” Physical damage follows as well, especially in the case of the film’s “star,” Tilikum, for years the big Shamu attraction at Orlando’s Sea World, who was snatched at age two and then became prey to jealous female orcas who would repeatedly bite or “rake” him, while all were deprived of food if they did not perform well enough.

Such abuse had bitter results when it became apparent that the 12,000-pound Tilikum was responsible for numerous attacks upon humans, including the deaths of a couple of trainers. Other living, former trainers adamantly state that vital information regarding these tragic events was deliberately kept from them by Sea World officials, with blame being put on the trainers rather than the traumatized beast, in the interests of customer PR and the employment of future trainers who, to a man, were all bright-eyed and eager in their ignorance to work with such “wondrous” animals (and surprised by how little real marine experience was required of them initially).

Cowperthwaite laces the film with those ultra-corny, family-targeted promotional commercials for Sea World (one of them featuring the resonant tones of James Earl Jones), as well as truly harrowing shots of screaming trainers being helplessly dragged in the water and, in one instance, actually crushed between two whales. Pro-Sea World advocates are interviewed, but their words seem hollow and evasive in light of the hard evidence the film uncovers and, indeed, you come away thinking that a boycott of all such establishments—however many smiles they bring to the kiddies—is well in order.