Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images
Score: 4 out of 5
Blackfish opens with a 911 call that, even by Florida standards, is weird: a report of a person getting eaten by a whale. That whale, an orca named Tilikum, was part of the Shamu show at SeaWorld Orlando, and the victim, a trainer named Dawn Brancheau, was scalped and badly beaten in the middle of the show; she was dead by the time the paramedics got there. What follows is a tale, told through interviews with scientists and former trainers and admittedly sensationalized but remarkably true to life, of the behind-the-scenes details of killer whale shows at SeaWorld and other marine zoos. Starting with how the whales were acquired in the first place, we see how, despite warnings that the name "killer whale" (referring to the same species as the orca) was not just a turn of phrase, the orcas, creatures with intelligence and emotional capacity comparable to human beings, were mistreated and abused to the point where they snapped and went full Westworld on their trainers. Equal parts nature documentary, agitprop, and When Animals Attack, Blackfish is a gripping and enlightening film that made me feel a mixture of anger over how marine parks like SeaWorld both mistreat their animals and put their trainers in harm's way, and a tinge of shame at the thrills I got watching so many clips of captive orcas beating the living snot out of trainers.
The main "character", so to speak, is Tilikum, a killer whale who was born in the wild and captured off the coast of Iceland as an infant. Taken from his mother, he was brought to Sealand of the Pacific, a small marine zoo in Victoria, British Columbia, where he and two other orcas proceeded to get the park closed by viciously attacking and killing a trainer who slipped and fell into the pool. He was later purchased by SeaWorld, who sent him to their Orlando park to take part in their Shamu show. There, he racked up an additional two notches on his body count. The first was a park guest who stayed after the park had closed so that he could swim with the whales, and was found the next day dead, mutilated, and draped over Tilikum's back. While that was just some random Darwin Award winner who really should've known better, Tilikum's third victim, Dawn Brancheau, couldn't be accused of such stupidity. Dawn was a stickler for safety and procedure, such that her fellow trainers were in shock to learn that she, of all people, was the one who got killed on the job. If you're wondering why SeaWorld kept Tilikum and continued using him in their shows despite his involvement in three fatal incidents that, if he were a dog, would likely get him put down, the answer is simple: they needed him to stud, harvesting his sperm and using it to impregnate the females they had in captivity to produce new orcas.
Tilikum's story is told hand-in-hand with lessons on orca biology and social behavior, as well as an expose on how SeaWorld and other marine parks treat the animals in their care. Orcas are among the few species whose intelligence can be said to measure up to that of humans, with complex tribal social organizations, rudimentary languages, and expressions of grief at the loss of their loved ones. Orcas and their close relatives, the dolphins, are up there with great apes, cephalopods, and crows as some of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom, making it all the more puzzling how we would think it a good idea to kidnap these animals in their infancy and have them do tricks for people, in a spectacle that bears a greater resemblance to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus than it does to any sort of educational experience. Putting these creatures in captivity, and often in harrowing conditions that see them subjected to all manner of indignities, leads to health problems and a severely truncated lifespan. Their dorsal fins are usually collapsed, they fight and scratch each other in pools badly enough to cause serious injuries, they suffer emotional breakdowns as their babies are taken away from them to be sent to other parks, they sleep at night in tiny enclosures, and while orcas in the wild commonly live to be over fifty years old, the average lifespan of an orca in captivity is 25-35 years; captive animals that live natural lifespans are rare.
It should be no wonder, then, that there have been dozens of reported incidents involving orcas turning against their masters. Given the massive size of these creatures, tipping the scales at six to twelve thousand pounds, we are lucky that only four people, out of the dozens who have been attacked by them, have died as a result of their encounters. Less promising is the fact that the vast majority of adverse incidents involving orcas, including all four fatalities, have involved orcas in captivity. In the wild, while orcas are not harmless, attacks on humans are rare. At marine parks, on the other hand, trainers are sent to work with aggravated orcas with only rudimentary training, with SeaWorld, despite all its problems detailed throughout the film, actually being one of the better parks when it comes to the safety of its employees and making sure they know what they're doing. At Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain, site of the fourth fatality, a trainer named Alexis Martinez complained about being overworked and tired the day before he wound up getting his chest bashed in by an orca named Keto during rehearsals for their Christmas show. This is where a good chunk of the film's main source of outrage lies. Not only are marine zoos abusing intelligent creatures by keeping orcas in captivity, they are also putting the lives of trainers at risk by having them work with these ornery animals, their training amounting more to showmanship than science and developed for much smaller and less dangerous dolphins and sea lions. Experience doesn't seem to be a factor in keeping trainers safe; Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque and Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando were known by their colleagues to be among the most experienced trainers at their parks, training that amounted to nothing when their charges turned on them and killed them.
SeaWorld has, of course, vociferously disputed all of the charges made in this film, but actions speak louder than words. Since 2013, the year that Blackfish was released, SeaWorld has announced that it would be phasing out the Shamu shows at all of its parks, and ending the captive breeding programs it had for orcas. The current generation of killer whales at SeaWorld will be the last, and even discounting other parks that breed their own orcas, bans on the capture of wild orcas combined with high mortality rates in captivity mean that they are dying faster than they can be bred, at least according to the Miami Seaquarium, which still uses orcas for its own shows. If nothing else, SeaWorld knew that, in the wake of Dawn Brancheau's death, it had a PR debacle on its hands that was being felt through lost revenue, and that putting the lives of trainers at risk by having them work with cranky, captive, mistreated marine carnivores was perhaps not the best way to get people to come visit their parks.
If righteous indignation isn't your thing, then Blackfish also works on a more base level. In key stretches, this film uses footage of non-fatal orca attacks on humans, as well as video of orcas in the wild hunting seals and fish, to drive its point home: that these are dangerous and intelligent wild animals who should not be held in captivity. They may be cheap thrills that the film is going for here, and something tells me that going the Mondo Cane route kind of undercut its otherwise sober look at the phenomenon of captive killer whales, but I'll admit it: if watching and enjoying videos of orcas trying to kill people who did nothing wrong besides work for SeaWorld is sick, then I don't want to be healthy. If you want to see how majestic and powerful these apex predators can be, then watching them put us puny humans in our place is a good way to start.
The Bottom Line
An enthralling documentary offering lessons in both marine biology and the folly of humans, Blackfish may be sensationalized with its use of animal attack footage, but if that's what it needs to do to get its point across, then so be it.