Sundance: Blackfish

Editor’s note: Our review of Blackfish originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the movie opens in limited theatrical release.

If Orca taught us anything it’s that killer whales enjoy the taste of Republican lady gams. If it taught us anything else though it’s that some animals are best left alone. If we have to cage something (which we don’t) make it something small, manageable and stupid, and exclude creatures that fall outside those parameters. Animals that weigh 12,000 pounds for example…

Tilikum is just such a beast, but ever since his capture off the coast of Iceland in 1983 he’s been performing (or being milked for sperm) in parks like SeaLand and Sea World. Want two more facts about Tilikum’s sad life?

He’s directly linked to three human deaths. And he’s still performing at Sea World.

The most recent incident occurred in early 2010 when he pulled his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, into the pool and proceeded to chew, drown and crush the woman before terrified (and confused) onlookers. She was a consummate professional by all accounts who spent half her life working with animals including years with Tilikum, all of which led several peers to state that if this could happen to her then it could happen to anyone.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite‘s new documentary Blackfish is a searing indictment of the entire killer whale-as-entertainment industry from the capture methods to the obvious strains of captivity, but she puts a specific focus on this particular whale. Whale experts, ex-trainers, witnesses and other talking heads associated with some of the parks share an opinion validated for them in hindsight.

Intentionally, and perhaps unavoidably, the film is slanted in it view and features interviewees almost universally against the practice of large sea mammals being used as entertainment. Sea World representatives refused comment, and while one ex-trainer stands by his guns to defend the parks the remainder of them talk candidly about their past roles and the regrets and guilt they now live with.

The film’s most powerful weapon though remains video recordings of incidents over the years involving Tilikum as well as other whales. Most, if not all of the footage has been available online, but that doesn’t lessen their impact. One clip in particular featuring a male trainer repeatedly dragged down and held at the bottom of the pool is a nerve-wracking, tension-fueled several minutes.

The problem though is that the film’s dual attacks, interviews and video footage, don’t offer much new to viewers already even slightly familiar with the topic. The interviewees are speaking common sense, and the videos have already been widely circulated on YouTube. There’s nothing left to act as a revelation or smoking gun.

Still, there’s no denying the power of the non-attack footage. Videos showing the capture of whales off Washington state and Iceland and others showing what these beasts endure afterwards are difficult to watch and comprehend. Scenes featuring female whales literally screaming after their recently birthed calves have been removed from the pool and trucked off to other parks are even more devastating.

Blackfish never really offers anything new, but what it does feature is extremely important. Many of the participants believe these practices will come to an end in the near future. I wish I shared their optimism.

The Upside: Some of the attack footage will have you holding your breath; heart-wrenching at times for both whale and human victims; ex trainers take their share of responsibility

The Downside: Unavoidable, but it’s not very balanced; doesn’t offer much new information to already aware viewers

On the Side: Blackfish is a name given to killer whales by Native Americans.

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