There is no denying the power of Blackfish. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s bold look into the captive orca industry is a dizzying and shocking affair, working almost as a of cautionary monster movie but one which touches upon corporate greed, human psychology and the nature of animal instinct. The film makes it clear that orca attacks on humans in the wild are exceedingly rare and never fatal, which contrasts with the high number of whale-related incidents within water parks around the world. Though the film takes a broad view of the industry – looking into the psychology and emotions of orcas and the legality and cruelty of their capture and treatment – it focuses for the most part on SeaWorld’s giant bull whale Tilikum, an animal which in captivity has been responsible for three human deaths, the most noticeable and famous of which being Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Blackfish is a bold and shocking documentary; a film which to the horror of SeaWorld investors worldwide, demands public attention.The tone of the Blackfish is set right from the start – an utterly chilling 9/11 call (‘the whale ate one of the trainers’) is immediately followed by a cheery, cheesy SeaWorld commercial. Already this provides a sense of discrepancy – the bright, all-American land of the SeaWorld resort stands in direct contrast to the images and recordings presented throughout the movie. Such ideas are further reinforced by hidden-camera moments showing SeaWorld staff lying (not intentionally, we’re told they’re trained with the wrong information) about the age orcas live to. When watching Blackfish, you feel like you’re seeing SeaWorld and all orca shows in a completely new light; something you originally didn’t really think about is suddenly barbaric and cruel, and you wonder how you missed it.
Blackfish humanises its whales – their trainers speak of them like dogs, and it’s clear that it’s easy to form emotional bonds with orcas, who themselves seem to form bonds back, with both humans and other whales. We’re presented with information and scenes proving that orcas are far smarter than your average whale, and some of these moments are devastating. The teary moment as a fisherman recounts his harrowing experience of catching whales back in the day is haunting, possibly the strongest moment in the movie, and a later scene showing a baby orca separated from its mother is brutal. The film doesn’t necessarily fall into outright sentimentality but it’s hard to look at what’s happening here without being deeply moved.The film traces Tilikum though the years, beginning with Dawn’s death before jumping back to the Tilikum’s early days and working forward. Through Tilikum’s history, we come to feel sorry for him – despite the fact that he’s dangerous and has killed people. It’s a credit to the filmmakers they they treat a very grey situation with such careful ambivalence – we end up empathising with both Dawn Brancheau and the animal which killed her. There’s a sense throughout that neither the animal nor the trainers are to blame for what’s happened – the fault lies with SeaWorld, something stressed through the multiple interviews with ex-employees, who repeatedly state that SeaWorld withheld information from them at the time of employment. The amount of ex-trainers involved in this documentary serves as a damning statement against SeaWorld’s back catalogue of supposed mistreatment and lies. It’s heartbreaking to see the trainers in archive footage – young, idealistic and naive – contrasted with their older, more knowledgeable selves. There’s a sense they feel great shame over the past.But the film takes a broader view of the situation beyond Tilikum, looking at the nature of captive whales in general. Towards the middle of the film, there’s an absolutely brutal sequence of archive footage showing various captive whale attacks on humans throughout the years. These attacks follow one after another, slamming into the audience, and the effect is a visceral attack on emotions and senses which is hard to watch. This section of the film is disorientating and painful, which is the point, the most powerful moment being a trainer repeatedly pulled to the bottom of a pool by a giant orca. Watching the trainer’s calm attempt to reason with his whale, which is actively trying to kill him at the time, is harrowing viewing. A scene with the fiancé of one of Loro Parque’s fatalities is equally distressing. You’re given a real sense of the power of these animals, which in turn, provides an understanding of how ludicrous their captive situation is, which essentially turns SeaWorld itself into a monster, as they seem actively against dealing with the problem. It’s a testament to Blackfish that is so easily sways audience favour – the footage and testimonies are hard to disagree with.To criticise the movie, it’s almost too broad. We don’t focus on just Tilikum, or Dawn, or the ex-trainers or the industry so much as we focus on all of these things. The approach serves to demonise the industry but doesn’t allow for much further detail. This is partly due to SeaWorld’s noticeable lack of participation; considering the film is so directly about the company, it would have been nice to get a dissenting point of view, albeit maybe one without the typical PR spin. This may have allowed more focus within the finished film. SeaWorld are in a grey area – they do fund and help with maritime mammal causes and have over the years had an important environmental impact, but this is barely touched upon in Blackfish, the focus instead being on SeaWorld’s sales and capitalist wickedness. By not appearing in the documentary, they seem to validate these claims, and come across as corrupt and cruel; turning down those interviews may have been a misstep and it’s clear that SeaWorld never expected Blackfish to take off in the way it did. Somewhere out there SeaWorld’s PR team are having a crisis-management meeting over this movie.
That said, this is a powerful, shocking documentary, one which stays in the mind after viewing. Especially if you’ve never thought much about the situation before, Blackfish will make you never want to visit a SeaWorld again. After watching the movie, you’ll see whale shows in the same way you seem trained lions and Russian dancing bears; as a circus basically, something which shouldn’t be allowed in the modern world. It says a lot that the film is so able to convince you of its view. A stunning documentary and one everyone should watch.