‘Blackfish’ movie review


Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld in Orlando, has been involved with the deaths of three people, two of whom were trainers. (Magnolia Pictures)
July 25, 2013

It’s upsetting and scary to watch the footage of orca attacks collected in “Blackfish,” a damning documentary about the treatment of the animals by marine parks, where they have long performed water tricks in front of paying customers. It’s upsetting not just on account of the human victims, some of whom died horrible, grisly deaths, but also on account of the attacking animals, who don’t seem very happy to be there, to say the least.

So it’s understandable that the management of SeaWorld — the marine park that takes the brunt of the film’s many criticisms and whose business model relies heavily on its aquatic shows — also is upset. Two weeks ago, the public relations firm 42 West, which was hired by SeaWorld to respond to “Blackfish,” released a point-by-point rebuttal of what it calls eight misrepresentations in the movie. A few days later, the filmmakers issued their own rebuttal of SeaWorld’s rebuttal, all of which can be read on the film’s Web site.

Without getting into the details of the back-and-forth, it’s safe to say that SeaWorld comes across as a mite defensive. After all, McDonald’s didn’t even issue a press release after Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” came out. Sometimes it’s best not to call attention to the people who are pointing fingers at you.

Especially because SeaWorld is not the only marine park the film looks at. Other parks are taken to task for their orca policies; SeaWorld is merely the largest, best known and most vocal.

The core assertions made by filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite are shocking, even if there’s some dispute as to their accuracy. Number one: Captivity doesn’t seem good for orcas, which are highly intelligent, sensitive mammals. They tend to have a higher mortality rate living in parks than they do in the wild, the film notes. Whether that’s true or not, captivity certainly doesn’t seem to be good for their trainers. The number of incidents in which SeaWorld employees and others have been jostled, attacked, injured and killed by orcas — either by instinct, accident or as the result of what the film calls captivity-induced “psychosis” — appears to be way higher than most of us think.

(In case the film isn’t graphic or disturbing enough, the Orcahome Web site has compiled a well-documented list, including video, itemizing dozens of frightening and sometimes fatal encounters between humans and performing killer whales.)

Adding weight to the accusations against SeaWorld is a 2012 ruling by OSHA requiring SeaWorld trainers to work with the animals only in the presence of a physical barrier separating them from the animals. SeaWorld, of course, is appealing that rule, given the fact that its bread and butter depends on the flashier, more intimate aspects of human-orca interaction, including the iconic “rocket hop,” in which a wet-suited trainer is launched skyward from the nose of a killer whale.

Some of the higher-profile incidents — including the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau — are discussed in great detail by former SeaWorld trainers, accompanied by audio or video of the attacks. Many of them involve a single male orca, known as Tilikum, who has been involved in three deaths over many years. And yet Tilikum is still living at SeaWorld and has fathered a large number of captivity-bred orcas. A dog that had bitten that many people would have been euthanized long ago and not sent to a stud farm.

Is it Tilikum’s fault?

“Blackfish” strongly suggests that the animal is not wholly to blame. SeaWorld is portrayed as one obvious villain, but the film can’t do much to stop it. Heck, even OSHA may ultimately not be able to.

The other guilty party, the film suggests, is the people who pay to see marine-animal acts and who keep the parks in business. That’s where “Blackfish” can be effective. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming out of this movie and not swearing off the next vacation trip to Orlando, San Antonio or San Diego.

★★★½

PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains disturbing footage of orca attacks. 83 minutes.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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