Saturday, July 27, 2013


 4.5 / 5 

Revise the basic storyline of Blackfish just a bit and make the central character a human instead of a killer whale, and this would be the stuff of Robert Louis Stevenson, even Shakespeare:

A young child is stolen away from his family by heartless bounty hunters, then sentenced to live a life in soul-sapping captivity.  For the next 40 years, he cannot leave the confines of his prison, and can't even eat unless he performs entertaining acts for the powerful beings who control his every move.  At long last, his mind snaps, and he attacks the descendants of his captors, and everyone professes great shock at the actions of this innocent, lost soul, further punishing him until all he can do is wither away in his prison, fated never to see freedom again.

If he were a little boy who grew into a man, we could understand his aggression and even root for him to escape.  But escape isn't possible for Tilikum: He is an enormous, graceful, fiercely intelligent whale who performs for people.  What's surprising isn't that he killed the vivacious, big-hearted woman who worked with him, or even that he had apparently killed people before -- the biggest surprise that comes from watching the riveting documentary Blackfish is that he was normally so patient and even kind, and that he was able to be this considerate of his captors as long as he was.

Tilikum still lives (barely, if you can call it living) at SeaWorld Orlando, three years after he grabbed, attacked and killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, who had worked with him for years.  He's a valuable corporate asset, and has been ever since he was captured in the North Sea; not long after the state of Washington banned the capture of orca whales from the waters of Puget Sound.

Blackfish follows the shocking, heartbreaking story of Tilikum, from the time he was captured until recently, after the fatal incident with long-time whale trainer Brancheau, in which she died in a particularly gruesome, savage way.

But why did it happen?  That's the question Blackfish aims to answer, and it does so impressively, spinning a potentially dry, talking-head documentary into one with a fascinating dramatic rhythm.  It's one of the most dramatically lucid and compelling movies you're likely to see this summer -- all year, for that matter.

Interviews with former SeaWorld Orlando trainers and employees are the core of Blackfish, and they're absorbing and thoughtful, in part because these people aren't just angry; they feel cheated.  They spent years dreaming of working alongside 12,000-pound killer whales as part of the elite "show" team at SeaWorld.  They came to believe, whether through corporate training or simply sincere passion, that they were doing something wonderful, something joyful that should be celebrated.

After the horrific death of Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010, in front of an audience at the "Dine with Shamu" show, an expensive add-on "attraction" that is still held at the theme park, the half-dozen former trainers begin to rethink everything they knew about their work -- and the motivations of the company that employed them.

For its part, SeaWorld has launched an aggressive campaign to answer the movie's, mostly trying to fault the filmmakers for using illicitly obtained footage. But SeaWorld had a numerous chances to be involved, and declined. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite also manages to get SeaWorld's views communicated by incorporating courtroom testimony that makes them look bumbling at best and sinister at worst.

Starting with a frightening 911 call the night of the attack, Blackfish includes substantial footage shot of and by SeaWorld Orlando, emphasizing how much SeaWorld emphasized form over substance, appearance over safety.

But this is not a Sea-World-is-Evil story (well, not entirely).  It is a sweeping story that only ends at SeaWorld, and one of its most emotionally candid moments comes when one of the gruff, grizzled whalers who took babies from their families talks about the deep regret he feels and says that of all the things he's done in his life, that was the worst.

Other experts explain how and why whales communicate, and Blackfish works as a primer in orca knowledge that is at least as skewed as the "education" we get at theme parks, and helps us understand the film's most pressing question: How do we resolve the moral dilemma of keeping massive, and massively intelligent, creatures in a tiny pen for their entire lives?

There is room in Blackfish for opposing views, but they are undermined by footage of other shockingly violent, non-fatal incidents.

The urgent, offended, haughty response SeaWorld has given to Blackfish is quite understandable, actually: What else could its executives possibly say?  They're more or less caught red-handed here.

You may have enjoyed SeaWorld before, and been impressed by its claims that the animals in its parks are happy, well-adjusted and carefully monitored. But Blackfish presents damning, incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, and once you see it, you'll hope never to set foot in SeaWorld again.

Viewed July 25, 2013 -- The Landmark


No comments:

Post a Comment