Blackfish (Magnolia Pictures, PG-13)

blackfish 75If you’re planning on visiting Sea World anytime soon, this film will definitively talk you out of it.


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To this day, in my old bedroom at my parents’ house, there is a poster on the wall of a killer whale leaping majestically out of the ocean. As a kid, I was into whales. After all, they were pretty much the closest things to dinosaurs that are still around. But I remember seeing a killer whale at a water park and thinking that it seemed very sad. The documentary Blackfish confirms my younger self’s theory.

Blackfish focuses on one whale in particular, Tilikum. Tilikum has been in captivity for 30 years and been responsible for the deaths of three people. The story is told by former trainers and employees who have worked with him. Tilikum has a history of aggressive behavior, and the interviewees claim that this is a result of his captivity.

In a perfect world, a documentary would take a very even, unbiased look at its subject matter, but it’s very rare that they actually do. I don’t know much of anything about this particular story, so I kind of have to go with what the film tells me, and it is basically a vicious indictment of Sea World. The filmmakers say that they attempted multiple times to interview a Sea World representative, and that they were turned down repeatedly. The interviews they do have are pretty damning.

One of the most stunning things about Blackfish is the actual footage we get to see. Footage of trainers being attacked during shows is really chilling, and even more surprising are shots of Tilikum’s open wounds after being attacked by the other whales in his pen. There’s also a scene of trainers manually collecting his sperm, which I’ll never be able to un-see. The fact that Sea World is surrounded by cameras at all times allows the filmmakers to draw a very clear picture without relying on the audience’s imagination.

At the risk of sounding incredibly simplistic, the biggest thing I took away from seeing this film is that it’s all very sad. You feel bad for the whales stuck in captivity. At one point, a doctor explains that an orca’s brain is similar to a human brain, except that the lobe associated with emotion is significantly larger, meaning that they are very sensitive creatures. One interviewee tells a heartbreaking story about a killer whale being separated from her baby and then spending the next few days crying in the corner of the pool. You specifically feel bad for Tilikum who, despite being a killer, is clearly a victim.

Some films would be all about the animals, but Blackfish focuses just as much on the people involved, so that you feel a great deal of sympathy for them, as well. These people obviously love the creatures with whom they work, but they are also talking about their friends and co-workers who have been killed. The film wants to get you angry, and it succeeds.

I’ve seen posters that describe Blackfish as “a psychological thriller.” That’s pretty silly. It seems like studios always try to sell documentaries as something other than what they are. Blackfish is a documentary, a very well constructed one that sets out to say something and says it. It’s not revolutionary in any way, but it is certainly powerful. And if you’re planning on visiting Sea World anytime soon, this film will definitively talk you out of it. | Sean Lass

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