Blackfish Review

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rating: 3.5

Gabriela Cowperthwaite€™s Blackfish is a combo of documentary expose and unconventional murder mystery. The setting is Sea World in Orlando and the murderer, who€™s taken three lives to date, is not human but a 32-year old Orca whale named Tilikum. Although the culprit is not in question, the how and why of the Orca€™s violence lead-in to something else altogether, an illuminating and oft damning portrait of Sea World and its questionable practices regarding killer whales. There€™s a tendency for emotional assault and sermonizing in an advocacy piece like this, but despite Cowperthwaite€™s obvious agenda, she delivers inarguable (although Sea World has done just that) evidence with a mostly firm and steady hand. There€™s a pointed conclusion laid out right from the film€™s start; keeping captive killer whales is not just a dangerous proposition but also one that€™s also abusive and morally questionable. At the heart of Cwperthwaite€™s drama is the question of how much mistreatment and imprisonment a sentient being can endure before it will lash out. This of course, requires that the audience conclude that Orcas are intelligent creatures with potential for some level of emotional response, and that what aquariums and venues like Sea World are doing is disrespectful and destructive to their being. black-fish-orca If you aren€™t grabbed on that level, than there€™s a far more practical and immediate issue raised; that keeping killer whales in captivity is dangerous for the human lives in their proximity. We€™ve taken graceful, mercilessly efficient predators and made them into living beach toys for our amusement. Eventually, someone€™s going to pay the piper. Sitting next to the evidence of Orca violence against humans are numerous accounts of the questionable practices that the sea park structure currently supports; animals deprived of food as punishment and living spaces entirely too small for larger whales, as well as encouraged bullying from other animals to ensure successful €œtraining€. In one scene, an old seaman recounts a sea park funded hunt that ended in sinking the carcasses of adult Orcas to the bottom of the ocean. Blackfish broadly addresses the Orca question and the training and raising practices they experience in captivity, but Cowperthwaite also hones in on Tilikum€™s individual case and all of the red flags it seemingly raises. The 6-ton creature was removed from the wild in 1983 and little less than a decade later was involved in the death of Keltie Byrne, which happened not at Orlando but in a Canadian aquarium called Sealand of the Pacific. Eight years later, in 1999, a Sea World visitor named David Dukes hid inside the park after hours and was discovered naked and dead on Tilikum€™s back the next morning, having been stripped and castrated by the animal. The third death was of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, who was pulled into the water and drowned after a €œDine with Shamu€ show. Although Sea World prohibited water work with Tilikum, due to his size, Cowperthwaite makes a persuasive case for the fact that the park misrepresented Brancheau€™s death, implying that she was careless and was pulled into the water by her ponytail, when it seems more likely, based on surveillance footage, that the whale grabbed her arm. In addition to this, several Sea World trainers are presented in talking heads, confessing that their employers downplayed the animal€™s history and more than a few express tearful regret for helping the company spread the idea that the Orcas are better off in captivity. Many times, the film contrasts moments of public showmanship at SeaWorld performances against the somber images of these same handlers, who, with experience, now know better. hero_hero_Blackfish_Dogwoof_Documentary_7_800_450_85 Blackfish offers up plenty of initially shocking footage to zap home its angle, including scenes of Orca attacks upon visitors and trainers, but it never relies solely on these incidental artifacts to argue its point. Cowperthwaite and her editor/co-writer Eli B. Despres approach this material with a fiery determination and a no-holds barred perspective, which can seem one-sided, but then that€™s really the point; they aren€™t interested in entertaining or simply educating, they want to see reform and their film carries the courage of their convictions. While the film is undoubtedly effective at casting a light on the issue, it sometimes feels too cloistered and limited as it pounds away at the Orca debate. Part of this problem is that despite an increase in recent animal advocacy, there€™s not been nearly enough mannered and reasoned discussion regarding long-standing practices, the type your average visitor to a place like Sea World never questions. Blackfish is ultimately interested in getting its message across, and most aesthetic concerns are secondary, which results in the movie being a visual mish-mash that sometimes hits the right notes and other times overeggs the pudding with unnecessary static. More often than not, Cowperthwaite is so focused on making a bruising, eye-opening document that she neglects the fact she€™s also making a film. Using several different genre tropes€”at times it feels we might be watching a horror movie, a procedural, or an animal advocacy film like The Cove or Project Nim€”Cowperthwaite assembles a journey that is both emotional and intellectual, and directly asks us to reconsider complacent views. There are very films that can coerce this from us as blatantly as Blackfish does, but it€™s also an unfortunate fact that this particular issue is one that often invites warm, fuzzy ignorance. Unless the facts are shoved right out there in front of us, it€™s all too easy to keep imagining those shiny, happy mammals doing tricks out of the goodness of their very large, aquatic hearts. While it isn€™t a horror film, Blackfish does attempt to express the outright horrifying treatment that it suspects these animals endure via a tradition that many of us chalk up as harmless. In the end, it€™s not so surprising to see that Tilikum has become a killer in captivity. Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 10.40.10Blackfish is now playing in limited release in the U.S. and opens in the UK on Friday July 26th.
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Nathan Bartlebaugh hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.