All words: Kaylee Dugan
To those of us who are not huge fans of documentaries, Blackfish, a doc that’s as much about a whale killing its trainer as it is about the morality of whales in captivity, may seem… well, kind of lame. It’s the sort of subject that brings “save the whales” jokes along with some dramatic eye rolling in the direction of PETA. But don’t let the subject matter fool you: director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has created a sort of documentary-mystery hybrid, filled with lies, intrigue, cover ups, and stories destined to make you cry.
Blackfish follows the capture and troublesome life of Tilikum, the world’s largest orca in captivity. Tilikum started out at a miniscule Canadian park called Sealand, which closed in 1992 after a trainer was pulled underwater and drowned while Tilikum and two female whales were in the tank. While the official story claims that no one could come to a consensus over which whale initiated the attack, two eyewitnesses say that Tilikum, who was identified by a collapsed dorsal fin, was the one who pulled in the girl.
Soon after, Tilikum was bought by SeaWorld, where he lived uneventfully until an incident in 1999. On July 6th, a naked dead man was found draped over Tilikum’s back. While there is no tape of what happened, the man was somehow able to evade security cameras and the night watchman in order to sneak into Tilikum’s tank. Officially, he died from hypothermia and dehydration, but he also suffered from numerous bites. Again, there was a lull, until 2010, when in front of an audience, Tilikum killed senior trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Brancheau’s death, and the OSHA trial that followed, is what inspired Cowperthwaite to make the documentary and it’s evident while watching the film. There is quite a bit of love for Brancheau from fellow trainers and even Brancheau’s sister. Brancheau’s death get’s the most screen time and could be considered the climax of the film. But that’s one of Blackfish’s problems. There is plenty of build up and suspense over what happens to Tilikum, but it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere.
We’re told about all of these gruesome and horrifying deaths at the hands of this possibly psychotic whale, but they’re presented in a way that kills any huge climax. There’s a lot of jumping around between Tilikum’s narrative, other whale attacks, and the OSHA trial. While all of the facts are incredibly interesting, there’s just too much happening at one time, which ultimately hurts the narrative. It feels like all of these facts and stories are being pelted at you and at the end all you have are names, dates, and the thought that you’ll never go to SeaWorld again.
Even though the narrative has problems, Blackfish is brimming with compelling information. The movie does a very good job at dispelling the whale caricature created by SeaWorld’s Shamu and Warner Brothers’ Free Willy. Whales are not the crazy large puppies of the sea. They are intelligent animals with complex emotions who are capable of love, hatred, and despair. And while Tilikum did kill three people, Cowperthwaite does a good job convincing us it was because of the emotional toll of being in captivity, something Tilikum has no control over. Her argument is surely a difficult task. We live in a society where animals that kill humans are hunted down and then demonized (e.g. sharks and pit bulls), even if the animals are in similarly abusive situations as Tilikum. Cowperthwaite easily relays the blame from the whales to SeaWorld and other similar companies. This sometimes come off as a little preachy, the cover ups and lies that are debunked make a very good case for SeaWorld being at fault for not only the deaths, but also the animals’ mental breakdowns.
Blackfish is high energy, high stakes, and it completely destroys one of our favorite childhood destinations. For what more could you ask?