ArtsATL > Film > Review: “Blackfish” takes troubling look at whale’s life in a “bathtub” at SeaWorld

Review: “Blackfish” takes troubling look at whale’s life in a “bathtub” at SeaWorld

Blackfish

The first, blunt takeaway from “Blackfish” is that aquatic extravaganzas such as SeaWorld and its (cheaper, sketchier) ilk worldwide should be shut down immediately. This documentary is the sort of thing that SeaWorld executives, who refused interview requests from filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, would denounce as “activist.” Makes me wonder when that word became a bad thing.

Here’s the story; it’s simple. “Blackfish” focuses on the captive life of a 12,000-pound orca whale, a.k.a. killer whale, named Tilikum, a male captured at sea when he was a two-year-old calf in 1983 and who thereafter lived at British Columbia’s Sealand before being sold to SeaWorld in Orlando. He killed people. At least three, possibly more — two trainers and a drifter who stole into SeaWorld one night, probably seeking some groovy communion with a whale, but who got his junk bitten off and was drowned while pursuing his vision-quest.

A second blunt takeaway from “Blackfish” is: Who can blame him?  (I mean Tilikum, not the drifter.) Orcas, apparently deeply social animals accustomed to swimming the limitless oceans, aren’t meant to be locked up in what a CNN anchor likens onscreen to “a bathtub.” “Blackfish” is undeniably slanted. Its talking heads are scientists or, more numerous, former SeaWorld trainers who look back with regret and bitterness at what they weren’t told and what they only gradually came to learn while risking their lives on the job.

The most headline-grabbing death was the most recent, in 2010, when longtime trainer Dawn Brancheau was drowned, scalped and partly dismembered by Tilikum, with whom she had had a long working relationship. That’s the instigating act at the heart of “Blackfish,” and also the reason these people are speaking out.

The film documents a history not only of animal cruelty but of a general misinformation campaign from SeaWorld to the public and its staff. SeaWorld employees, the movie alleges, are coached to tell the ticket-buying public that orcas live 25 to 35 years on average. That they do –- in captivity. Their lives tend more toward human length in the wild.

Unfortunately, “Blackfish” can’t help feeling lopsided. It’s a shame –- but understandable –- that it lacks any representatives of SeaWorld, trying to explain why they literally throw their employees into the deep end without sufficient training to contend with the big, dangerous animals they’re swimming with.

In 1977, scientists scoffed at “Orca,” a “Jaws”-wannabe most memorable for the scene where a pre-“10” Bo Derek gets her leg chomped off by the vengeful whale. “Blackfish” asserts that there are no accounts in recorded history of killer whales — in the wild — harming humans. By the end, this documentary convincingly suggests that mankind, by attempting to “tame” such animals, can unwittingly act as Frankensteins; we make monsters.

“Blackfish.” A documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Rated PG-13. 83 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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