Friday, February 7, 2014


Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
2013. Rated PG-13, 83 minutes.
John Hargrove
Samantha Berg
Mark Simmons
Kim Ashdown
Dean Gomersall
Carol Ray
John Jett
Jeffrey Ventre
Thomas Tobin
Dave Duffus

I've never been to SeaWorld. It seems like such a happy place in all those commercials. Sure, I know there has been the occasional accident, but that's a hazard of working with killer whales, right? I mean, "killer" is in their name, isn't it? Okay, so watching Blackfish convinces me that this is an ignorant point of view. What the movie attempts to show is how much Sea World itself is culpable for these accidents due to the way the animals are treated. In particular, we focus on a whale named Tilikum, who has been responsible for the deaths of several humans.

The short story is that everything about the way whales are kept runs completely counter to the way they live in their natural habitat. We learn how this breeds frustration and aggression in them. With regards to Tilikum, we get accounts of various incidents from his life which continue to influence his behavior. Expanding the story to include reasons for these things taking place, it becomes a tale of corporate greed. It becomes clear that the whales are viewed merely as product by the powers that be.

What helps the documentary's effectiveness is that a number of our talking heads are people who dealt with the whales first hand. They are former SeaWorld trainers who, in many cases, worked directly with Tilikum. Things they were tasked to do weren't anything they immediately thought of as cruel, especially as young people with no prior experience with whales. In hindsight, they have a greater understanding of things, no longer work for SeaWorld, and are speaking out against them. Other people who appear have studied killer whales and/or worked with them in some capacity for decades.

Predictably, no representatives of SeaWorld agreed to be interviewed. Speaking for them is old court testimony, quotes given to various media outlets over the years, company handbooks, and anything else the filmmakers could get their hands on. We get the distinct impression they are hiding behind their legal team. However, there is one brave soul, on former trainer who still tows the company line. In his mind, or at least his words, SeaWorld has done nothing wrong. Agree or disagree, I must give him credit for having the courage to say so on camera.

Blackfish succeeds on three important fronts. First, it paints SeaWorld as the quintessential sinister organization, doling out misinformation to justify questionable tactics. We become outraged at the goings on behind the scenes. As is often the case, seeing how the sausage is made turns our stomach. Second, the movie educates us about killer whales. It points out many of the flaws in our perception of these creatures. It even humanizes them, to some degree. All of this builds tremendous sympathy for them that becomes very powerful when mixed with our anger at SeaWorld. third, even if the other things aren't life changing for you, at the very least you will never look at one of those commercials the same way ever again.

MY SCORE: 9/10

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