Review: Blackfish

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Blackfish

Like many polemical documentaries, the horrifying Blackfish is a challenge to review. Its subject -- the mistreatment of killer whales who perform at SeaWorld and other water parks -- is emotionally charged, and any critic with a glimmer of sympathy for animals will find it hard to separate the film's message from its cinematic qualities.

Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, an outsized 12,000 lb. killer whale who has been performing at water parks since his capture in 1983. Eager to perform but sometimes dangerously unpredictable, Tilikum has killed three people -- trainer Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991, SeaWorld Orlando visitor Daniel Dukes in 1999, and star SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

Tilikum's deadly history is uncommon, but Blackfish argues that his life story is not. Via heartbreaking archival footage and interviews, the film explains that capturing wild killer whales was commonplace for decades and especially cruel: the whale hunters captured only young whales as the distraught adults looked on helplessly. (In the wild, killer whale offspring stay with their mothers for life.)

The film shows the captured whales living in misery, stored in cramped tanks and spending long periods in isolation. This mistreatment is very stressful, and many a whale and human have suffered injuries when the gargantuan animals turn aggressive toward each other and their trainers. The film mentions more than 70 serious accidents, as well as the death of another trainer in the Canary Islands.

The interviewees in Blackfish, most of them former SeaWorld trainers, claim they did their best to care for the whales but were not experts in whale behavior and were unaware of the animals' suffering. Park officials considered the animals to be little more than equipment and often misled the trainers; for example, the SeaWorld party line is that the whales live much longer in captivity than in the wild, when the opposite is true.

If we take Blackfish at its word, it's a powerful indictment of the water park industry. It succeeds painfully well as a gripping argument against keeping whales in captivity, with plenty of visceral, bloody footage and scathing testimony. We feel the whales' physical and psychological pain, and sympathize even with the terrifying Tilikum. Like most monsters, he was made -- not born.

But for all its punch, Blackfish isn't stellar documentary filmmaking. It lacks nuance, and the tone is angry rather than rational; the film uses a sledgehammer of startling imagery to drive home its point. Blackfish isn't clever or original; it's a routine and a sometimes preachy message film.

While often visually captivating, Blackfish lacks visual polish. The archival footage looks to be recorded from TV broadcasts on worn VHS tapes, which some of it (including old SeaWorld commercials) probably was. Filmmakers must make do with whatever archival footage they can find, but some of these images are so blurry and grainy that the film would be better without them. And courtroom testimony is recreated with ugly, low-rent animation that contrasts jarringly with the interviews and spectacular scenes of the whales.

The film's fundamental flaw, however, is that it's completely one sided. Blackfish is a captivating polemic, but skeptics will find it simplistic and see it as lousy journalism. Some of the accusations (especially in the interviews) are speculative, and the film presents neither facts to prove them nor any rebuttals from from those accused. At the end, we learn that SeaWorld officials refused to appear in the film, repeatedly declining requests for interviews. To those who buy the message, this could make the film all the more damning -- if SeaWorld doesn't refute the allegations, they must be true, right? But to skeptical viewers, it adds nothing to the film's credibility. Blackfish would be a much stronger film if SeaWorld officials had defended themselves, and the filmmakers countered their defense with more damning evidence.

(Shortly before the film's release, SeaWorld did launch a surprising counteroffensive by sending a detailed rebuttal to dozens of film critics. A New York Times article describes this unusual PR campaign.)

Blackfish is a deeply flawed film -- but to its credit, its best moments are devastating enough that those who accept it as truth probably won't head for SeaWorld anytime soon.