Blackfish Review: A Brutal and Necessary Wake-up Call
Much ink has been spilt over Blackfish, the scathing new documentary from Gabriela Coperthwaite that interrogates the SeaWorld enterprise from top-to-bottom. The charge involves the parks’ perennial cash cow: the killer whale, none more spectacular than the 12,000-pound Tilikum. The evidence includes three human deaths at the hands of “Tilly”, most recently (and publicly) the 2010 death of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau. The witnesses include neuroscientists, fishermen, and former trainers and the jury finds SeaWorld guilty of deceit, corruption, and most severely, the barbaric mistreatment of their main attraction.
So much ink has been spilt over this gut-wrenching film that I was tempted not to contribute to the conversation at all. What could I say, I wondered, that hasn’t already been said. I’m not a scientist or a psychologist, a current or former SeaWorld employee, so who am I to chime in? Well, I love movies and I love whales, so when something bridges two of my passions so directly, my emotional investment skyrockets. Something about the marriage between our biggest, most majestic creature and the majesty of the big screen really gets my juices flowing and “whale scenes” in films like Finding Nemo, Cast Away, and Life of Pi give me goosebumps every time.
What’s more, I grew up in San Diego, home to the world famous San Diego Zoo, the Wild Animal Park (now the San Diego Zoo Safari Park), and of course one of the many SeaWorlds. I grew up accepting the last of these attractions as readily as I did the first two, never considering the difference between protecting endangered species and signing them up for the circus. I remember going to SeaWorld as a kid, marveling at the animals, oohing and ahhing along with the crowd, squealing with delight in the “splash zone”. It didn’t think twice about the implications of confining a creature that swims up to 100mph a day to a glorified swimming pool. It was entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less.
To say that Coperthwaite challenges this illusion of normalcy would be the understatement of the year--she skewers it, roasts it, tears it apart limb from limb. It’s a rare and riveting feat of documentary filmmaking that inspires action and promotes change. If enough people see it, discuss it, and are properly enraged by what they see, SeaWorld will have to respond.
Coperthwaite leaves no stone unturned, stuffing a brief 83 minutes to the gills with powerful testimonies from every possible angle, chronicling Tilikum’s life of captivity from the very beginning. One of the fishermen who captured the orca in the early ’80s fights back tears, admitting that hunting down and removing the baby whale from his mother was the worst thing he ever did. A neuroscientist explains the highly developed orca brain, claiming that they feel emotions deeper than any other animal, including humans. Former employees of the now-defunct SeaLand recall storing “Tilly” in a 20x30 feet, pitch-black “module”, where a psychologist believes a state of “psychosis” took place.
Coperthwaite masterfully passes the baton from subject to subject, each filling in a piece of the puzzle that accounts for Tilikum’s aggression and firmly places the blame (and the blood) on human hands. Part propaganda, part psychological thriller, Blackfish is also a captivating horror story where the villain is not a mutant or a monster (though the poster cleverly echoes the man-eating shark in Jaws), but a multi-billion dollar corporation that hides behind a team of lawyers and a binder full of party-lines. Scarier than the 23-foot killer whale is a company that mechanically sweeps things under the rug, knowingly putting its trainers in harm’s way on a daily basis.
The former trainers are the story’s heroes, victims, and whistleblowers all at once. We sympathize with them because we too were once caught under the spell, so titillated by the SeaWorld experience that we never stopped to realize how fishy it all was. The trainers recall spewing bogus “facts” about orca lifespans and collapsed dorsal fins and they consider with increasing outrage how much information was purposefully kept out of their reach, how little they truly knew about these animals.
For SeaWorld’s side of the story, we need look no further than our TVs, where commercials portray killer whales as harmless puppies with which humans are meant to frolic and play. An orca peers through the glass and gives a little girl fashion advice by shaking and nodding his head--a cute, cuddly captive that once roamed the open ocean but now exists to amuse a child.
Coperthwaite displays spectacular footage of humans interacting with orcas (including some seriously stomach-turning attacks), but she keeps Tilikum at a distance. Don’t expect to see Dawn Brancheau’s death. Was it too gruesome for a PG-13 rating? Was it a lawsuit waiting to happen? Did SeaWorld burn the tape? I suspect that she withheld this last piece of evidence to destroy once and for all the illusion that we can understand and relate to these creatures. It’s this very delusion that led us to believe we can imprison and control whales if we feed them fish.
We can’t. And thanks to Coperthwaite, maybe someday we won’t.
What do you think? Leave a comment.