Blackfish (2013) (PG-13)



















It would be terribly easy to condense "Blackfish" down into one statement: Seaworld is bad, orcas are good. If that's too specific, you could take it a step further: captivity is bad, orcas are good. But to look at such a film as this and just come away with a good vs bad idea in your head—I think you've missed the point of the film.
"Blackfish" tells the story or a killer whale named Tilikum. The movie opens with the 9-1-1 calls and inquiries about the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
We go back to the early years of capturing and imprisoning killer whales and then work our way up to 2010 where the inevitable and tragic death will occur. The journey from the 1970s back to the 21st century is very bumpy and I would say that this is one of the most jarring movies that a child could see.
In the 70s, off the north-western coast of the United States, killer whales were hunted. There were ships and spotter airplanes and huge nets...these people meant business.
The hunters would throw bombs in the water to scare the orcas away and herd them towards cliffs where they could be captured. The mothers and babies were separated from the males—then the hunters had their pick of the young orcas. One of the men recalls his participation, he seems haunted by the memories of the other whales watching them take the baby. The dead orcas caught in the net were slit open, filled with rocks, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The man states that it was the worst thing that he's ever done.
Eventually, the hunters were banned from the waters off of Washington, so they headed to Iceland and continued hunting. They caught a young male orca who was huge for his age—they named him Tilikum.
Tilikum's first taste of captivity came at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada. Everyone interviewed from this establishment agree that the orcas were mistreated. They were kept in a 20x30 foot box for most of their life. Orcas are a matriarchal species and Tilikum was not received by the other two orcas at Sealand of the Pacific, who were both females. They raked him with their teeth and beat him—the trainers knew this was happening, but they couldn't do anything about it. They were inexperienced and often starved the orcas as punishment.
Then, on February 20, 1991, the first incident occurred. Twenty-year-old Keltie Byrne was walking the perimeter of the tank during a show and slipped. Her legs slipped into the water—and here's where the stories differ. The Sealand representatives told the public that Keltie fell into the pool and then all three orcas attacked her; but eyewitnesses claim that Tilikum grabbed her boot, pulled her in, and drowned her.
This is where "Blackfish" shows its true colors—it's about captivity and animal treatment, but it is also about a conspiracy. The movie lines up evidence to show that Sealand, and later Seaworld Orlando, were falsifying statements and bending the truth to their whim to make it look like killer whales were perfectly happy in captivity.
Mothers would be separated from their babies, the orcas would kill each other, and trainer attacks were far from uncommon.
The archival footage is one of the many reasons you should watch "Blackfish"...it's stunning. There are numerous instances where orcas have attacked trainers—one man was crushed when a whale leaped on top of him at a show. One of the former trainers for Seaworld interviewed says that the attacked man was only held together by the wet suit he was wearing.
But it all leads up to the death of Dawn Brancheau—here are where the questions arise. Should trainers be allowed to be in the water with an unpredictable predator? Should orcas even be kept in captivity?
The audience sees many things—whales attacking each other in front of Seaworld patrons and show mishaps that are deadlier than they look.
"Blackfish" is not a one-sided movie, there are still trainers that think that the whales are better off in captivity. Whether or not you buy the coverups and the conspiracy; the facts are undeniable.
Orcas live a small percentage as long in captivity as they do in the wild, and the floppy male dorsal fin is an anomaly never observed in the wild. Whether this reflects poorly on the captivity or not—the capture of the creatures is enough to give "Blackfish" the power it needs.
Beneath all the interviews and lies, there is footage of a killer whale repeatedly dragging a trainer down to the bottom of the pool by his foot. It's this moment that is the most powerful film making I've seen in a long time.
"Blackfish" is a call-to-arms, a documentary that demands change; but more than that, it is a well-executed and evocative film.
It's not a 'good vs bad' film, it is celebrating the mystique of the orcas and warning those who think that killer whales are their best friend. Free Willy indeed.






Score: 4 out of 4 stars

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