Blackfish is a film SeaWorld doesn’t want you to see. Although they declined to actually be interviewed for the film, the aquatic theme park did manage to send out a PR blast refuting some of the information presented in the provocative new documentary. They are no doubt correct in feeling like the film embellishes some of the particulars because of clever editing, manipulative music, and what have you. But what film doesn’t enhance reality even a little? Films are geared toward eliciting a response, usually an emotional one. That said, some startling facts regarding captive killer whales still remain and there is no denying the power and horror of some of the film’s images.
The narrative of Blackfish traces the history of a very large male orca named Tilikum. It goes all the way back to his capture in 1983, his early years at a ma-and-pa SeaWorld called Sealand, through his years at SeaWorld, and finally his part in the OSHA vs. SeaWorld trial. In that time, Tilikum was involved in 3 “accidental” deaths including the most widely known 2010 incident that left Dawn Brancheau dead. What the film argues, using a bevy of former SeaWorld trainers, whale experts, and eye witnesses, is that SeaWorld knows these animals are a threat to humans as well as to themselves and other orcas and yet they continue to train, breed, and hold them. Over time, whenever a whale acts out, the movie claims that SeaWorld covers it up, spins the story, blames the trainer, and continues raking in the cash. Laced throughout the film are cheesy SeaWorld ads that play like ironic interstitials during an otherwise sober movie.
It always comes down to the money and SeaWorld has plenty of it. Holding these creatures captive shortens their lifespan, interferes with their social structures, and increases their aggression. Morally it’s wrong, no matter how much money is involved or even how much goodwill you engender toward marine biology. The film does run out of steam near the end. Unlike The Cove, this film doesn’t build toward a big cathartic payoff. There’s plenty of harrowing footage it’s just not saved for the end. One sequence of a trainer repeatedly being pulled under is particularly bone chilling. More scientific testimony would have been nice but there’s more than enough here to suggest culpability. It’s a film that wants to, and should, make you angry, and perhaps rethink that next vacation.