Review: 'Blackfish'

It is natural, perhaps even admirable, to want to gaze upon rare and unique members of the animal kingdom. God knows I wasted plenty of time today watching panda bears frolic on a slide when I should have been working. This push-and-pull between the affection for and exploitation of higher functioning beasts is part of what makes Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary “Blackfish” so tragic. That and the OHMYGODSOMEBODYHASTOSAVETHEPOORWHALES.

Orcinus Orcas are more commonly referred to as killer whales, though the name is a tad unfair. There are no recorded instances of killer whales critically damaging any humans in the wild. In captivity, however, this is not the case – despite attempts to cover this up. More to the point, the aggressive nature of one particular killer whale known as Tilikum, the “star,” if you will, of “Blackfish,” speaks to the emotional damage that family-friendly organizations like Sea World does to these remarkable creatures.

“Blackfish” is unquestionably an activist film, and it has two objectives. The first is to quickly get you up to speed on what leading scientists are actively learning about the highly advanced and social lifestyle of Orcas in the wild. This is new stuff, but the evidence is on the screen that these giant black and white sea monsters communicate and care for one another. I leave it between you and Poseidon to determine if they have a soul, but when a mother whale has her calf taken for her and she makes loud and strange howls that no marine biologist has ever heard before, you tell me what's going on.

The second goal of “Blackfish” is to lay a devastating hit job against Sea World. Through interviews with past and current staff, it presents a profit-over-people organization that a) knowingly puts their in-the-dark staff in harm's way and b) represents an unnatural and cruel environment for killer whales.

Tilikum, whale-napped at the age of three, has three deaths to his credit – two trainers and one oddball vagrant who decided it was smart to swim with whales after the park closed. “Blackfish” makes a very well-argued case that the environment in which Tilikum was raised led him to behave this way and Sea World, as if taking their cues from Michael Crichton, swept all the evidence under the rug.

“Blackfish” is designed to get you angry and, by this standard, it works. Considering that real people were killed (and we get to know one of them quite well through video footage) it doesn't feel right to call this film “entertaining,” but the build-up of tension does have a bit of a thriller's edge to it. A sequence in which a trainer engages in a lengthy battle for his life with a powerful whale in the midst of “acting out” is one of the most striking things I've seen in a theater all year.

While the claims against the whale-performance industry show Sea World and similar organizations to be wholly unethical, one can't help but take a moment to realize that this isn't, you know, exactly a common injustice. I mean, how many professional whale trainers are out there that are currently in danger? A very small number. And as a result of the lawsuit at the heart of this film, they are all now aware of the realities of their job.

A trainer now speaking out against Sea World says that he can't imagine taking his children to such a place knowing what he knows. Furthermore he says that in future generations we'll look back at these current parks with revulsion. A pro-Sea World talking head whines “what if there were no Sea World?!” as if this were some great tragedy.

While I agree the children should be encouraged to engage with the natural world, we have the technology now to observe these creatures in ways that don't endanger them. The modern BBC doc gets you a lot more up close and personal than a goofy choreographed show, anyway. It's unlikely anyone who sees “Blackfish” will be trekking to Shamu Stadium this summer.

SCORE: 7.0 / 10

For screening information and to learn more about the issues in the film, visit