BLACKFISH Home Video Review

I enjoy watching documentaries, much the same way I enjoy catching an episode of 48 Hours or 20/20 on CBS or ABC, but they aren't necessarily pieces of work that demand my attention the way feature films typically do. That may or may not speak negatively of me (coming from the angle I place more importance on fictitious works of art than art that is meant inspire change), but I still find documentaries and the stories chosen to be highlighted in a good number of them worth watching and in turn they usually deliver an interesting if not necessarily entertaining time. Last year, Searching For Sugar Man made my top ten list for my favorite films of the year and though I sat down to watch Blackfish with much anticipation I knew not to expect something that would rock my world as much as that unexpected doc had. Though this has clearly been the hot topic doc of the year so far I had yet to find an opportunity to venture out and see it as it only played for a week at my local indie theater, but when I saw it was airing last week on CNN it seemed a most opportune time to see what all the fuss was about and also be able to have this full review up in time for its release on DVD & Blu-Ray today. Needless to say, Blackfish is a fascinating film that wraps you up from moment one with a veil of mystery and intrigue that is sustained throughout the brisk 82-minute runtime and draws some pretty unavoidable conclusions on plenty of solid evidence that will have you wanting to pick up your picket signs and head for the nearest Seaworld. That isn't to say there aren't two sides to every story, but the case seems pretty open and shut here with only our ignorance and the way of life we've been conditioned to enjoy stopping us from seeing the truth here. The film isn't as revelatory as I expected it to be, but it is rather shocking in just how solid of a case it builds adding the mystery element only to serve as a storytelling tool that intrigues the audience and then hits us with incident after incident to hammer home the overarching goal of the film. Still, if the point of a documentary is to provide a factual record or report on the given subject then Blackfish has more than done its job to great effect.

Several trainers at Seaworld converse as one of their killer whales looks on.
Beginning with the case most of us will recognize that brought the reality of the danger of in-captivity killer whales to the surface, Blackfish begins by reminding us of Dawn Brancheau. Brancheau was a senior trainer at Seaworld who everyone seemingly enjoyed being around, was adamant about keeping safety a priority and yet during the course of a show she was lunged at by Tilikum, one of the biggest if not the biggest orca in captivity, and was essentially mauled to death by the animal she thought she could trust. This isn't the animals fault, they are kept under stressful circumstances along with countless other factors that add to what could be the potential reasoning for Tilikum consistently attacking people. It is when the documentary throws that consistently factor in there that we sit up and start to really pay attention. You mean this isn't the first time this specific whale has done something like this? From that point director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes us back thirty-nine years and gives us the low-down on how these killer whales were captured inhumanely and how they were transported to these small habitats that wouldn't so much give them a satisfactory existence as it would utilize them for show and profit. Cowperthwaite's true motivations for likely putting her efforts into this subject begin to come through as she traces Tilikum's capture in the wild to his first stint at a little place in Canada called Sealand which resulted in the death of a young girl in 1991, Keltie Byrne, whom eyewitnesses attribute directly to Tilikum. Being the sub-dominant male in a matriarchal society at Sealand Tilikum was bullied and so his probable frustration, pain and anger is not without reason. That this incident was never blamed on Tilikum caused him to be sent to Seaworld after Sealand shut down following the Byrne incident. We glimpse life at Seaworld through the eyes of five former trainers at the park and they each attest to how, even from his earliest days at the park, Tilikum was known to lunge at the trainers and that the people in charge likely knew much more than they were letting on about their new cash cow.

Getting into the thick of the plot means to look into what these five trainers are saying and how they position themselves in this whole issue. They all clearly have an emotional stance on the subject as they knew Dawn Brancheau quite well and worked with her closely on a day to day basis. Each of them have presumably been speaking out against their former employer and the rules and regulations that go along with working in such close proximity with the killer whales, but you have to ask if they felt bad about what they were doing what kept them silent for so long or why did it take the death of one of their fellow employees to realize Tilikum was potentially dangerous when there was plenty of other evidence that might have helped them prevent such a tragedy. As the world works though, I can chalk this up to the fact it usually takes something extreme occurring for extreme action to be taken. And there is clear compassion in the eyes of each of these trainers that look back now and are disgusted by the verbiage and scripted speeches the corporation had them spew to the audiences that painted a false yet comforting picture for the thousands of spectators that flock to the park daily. It is interesting to watch the interviews build on one another and to see how what is left in their minds has transferred from something they dreamed of doing throughout their childhoods to a point of regret in the learning of the actuality of what their roles in the lives of these trapped animals was. Still, the most damning piece of evidence going for these advocates is the fact no human has ever been attacked by a killer whale in the wild. That Tilikum was raised in the environment he was and the conditions he was presented with have taught him to act opposite of those that have the space and opportunity to live in the wild is an immediate red flag, but that these actions were swept under the rug time and time again without any consequences or changes in protocol speak to the greed of the people in charge more than anything. It is of course a tragedy that these animals are forced to live and act as they are, but it might be an even bigger tragedy to know how far the human being is willing to go for money and success no matter the psychological repercussions.

Tilikum is the killer whale under investigation in Blackfish.
There is a lot of money to be made off of places like Seaworld and the subsequent, smaller companies that attempt to do similar things and thus is the reason it becomes so difficult to try and stop them from containing what they can't control. This has always been the obvious root of the problem and Blackfish brings that to light while giving the underdog a voice and a platform to really take their message to the masses. I can remember seeing the trailer for this film early on in the summer and wondering if there was a bigger discussion already going on, despite the fact the general public has been given indications for quite some time that killer whales being kept in captivity is probably not the best idea. Ultimately though, what we are judging here is the way in which the message of this film was conveyed and I think that Cowperthwaite and her crew did a fine enough job illustrating the several strong factors they have that define why they feel the way they do. There is nothing held back, there is some intense and gruesome footage from which we are not spared and the techniques that Cowperthwaite employs to tell her story are utilized in ways that pull us in and keep us equally captivated and shocked at the idea the root cause of all this is the fact we need something to entertain ourselves and taming terrifying animals into submission is all but one of the greatest spectacles on earth. There are things that could have been done to improve the execution of the film, no doubt, but the choice to focus solely on this species of whales rather than say, expanding the conversation to include all kinds of animals or digging deeper into the actual psychology of Tilikum was a choice I think hinders more than helps. There are sections of the film that touch on what made Tilikum's brain progress from what it was in the wild and what it might have been to the male at Seaworld whose sperm has been used in breeding over half of the collection presently living in the park. There are sections analyzing the brain of Orca's and how they have parts humans don't have, or how their life spans in the wild as opposed to captivity differ and are manipulated by places like Seaworld, and even how Tilikum could have potentially grown from the intelligent, companion-like species many of the whale's in the wild turn out to be into this six ton, twenty-two foot animal that is able to kill with a sense of ease. Unfortunately the film only seems to skim the surface rather than actually dive as deep as needed to truly fulfill its intentions, but regardless this is very much worth a look.