Scathing SeaWorld doc "Blackfish" sure to make a splash
One of my earliest childhood memories is going to SeaWorld in Orlando. I must have been about four or five at the time, making it the kind of old memory that seems more like a dream, some scattered mental images half-glimpsed through a fog of time.
I know it wasn't a dream, though, because a running joke in the family was my inability to say the name Shamu. Instead, I called him "Shampoo," an adorable mental typo, though one that led to much horrified confusion when I discovered the substance I put in my hair during baths shared the same name. Was this the incredible whale's tragic fate? To become a fragrant goop that made my hair shiny and clean, and my eyes sting if I wasn't careful?
Five-year-old me was obviously wrong, but according to the new documentary "Blackfish," the majestic orca whales' fateful journey from the wild to the SeaWorld stage is almost just as horrid and cruel. And it's coming at the expense of human lives and our collective humanity.
In February 2010, SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was performing a show with Tilikum the orca when her aquatic star grabbed a part of the trainer (SeaWorld says her ponytail; the film says her arm) and dragged her underwater. Brancheau drowned in the ensuing struggle. She also suffered brutal injuries to her head, torso and neck, including a severed spinal cord. Video exists of the attack, but it's thankfully only seen in fleeting glimpses. OSHA responded with a lawsuit against the park, forcing trainers out of the water for Shamu shows.
The fatal attack on Brancheau serves as the center of "Blackfish," but instead of lingering on the violent behavior of the present, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite heads back to the past and plays criminal psychologist, uncovering what could have caused Tilikum's brutal actions (he's killed two others while in captivity as well).
What she uncovers is an unnerving trail of mistreatment, misunderstanding and abuse. It began with a chillingly calculated 1983 hunt for orcas. The babies – including Tilikum way back when – were separated from the adults and plucked from the water, all while the families helplessly looked on and heart-wrenchingly cried out for their kidnapped kin.
Tilikum and others then found themselves in small, barely lit storage tanks with one another. They'd take him out to perform a few moves for the kids in the crowd, and then put him back into his dark prison. Combine that with being starved by some of his early trainers and brutally bullied by many of his fellow whales – a side effect of being in tight quarters with members of other families and genders – and you've likely got a formula for a frustrated psychosis, just waiting to snap.
At least, that's the film's argument. "Blackfish" gathers up an overwhelming amount of evidence and support for its thesis, including plentiful interviews with former SeaWorld trainers. They start the film remembering the glee they originally had toward their jobs, but that joy turns into cynicism, fueled by outrage at the park's neglect to their health and the health – both mental and physical – of the complex and emotionally heightened animals under their watch.
Even more potent is the harrowing footage Cowperthwaite digs up, showing orcas profusely bleeding on stage from gashes obtained in captivity and dragging trainers around like ragdolls in other non-lethal but still horrifying attacks. Another tape shows a trainer, riding one orca, crushed when another whale decides to jump on top of him. One interviewee notes the trainer's wetsuit likely kept him together.
No one would deny that SeaWorld is doing wrong to these majestic creatures in the name of profitable family entertainment. Well, except SeaWorld of course. The park's tour guides sell that the orcas have longer lives in captivity and that their flopped over dorsal fins are a common, natural affliction, "facts" that the numerous trainers and whale experts interviewed quickly contradict. Even Brancheau's tragic death is twisted into a rejection of responsibility, with the park coldly tossing the veteran trainer under the bus by claiming "trainer error."
SeaWorld certainly has plenty of questions to answer, but "Blackfish" never quite seals the deal on the key argument that the attacks are really the result of the whales' mistreatment. It's the classic dilemma of correlation versus causation. It seems equally as plausible that maybe people just shouldn't be in close quarters with a thousand-pound creature capable of such unpredictably vicious behavior.
Nature is often a forceful, unruly beast, and as much as the experts discuss the whales' beauty, astute emotions and soulfulness, they're still killer whales. Even in the most humane of conditions, it seems like a risk to swim with these animals.
The argument that SeaWorld's tactics and captivity are wrong is undoubtedly solid and well-founded. To expand it to provide deeper meaning to these attacks? Less so.
One expert notes there are no instances of killer whales attacking humans in the wild, but we also don't normally attempt to ride orcas in the wild. After all, they're still the same creatures seen craftily joining together to push a seal off a chunk of ice, likely to its death, in an amateur YouTube video (complete with unintentionally hilarious audio commentary from its videographer).
While we're briefly on the topic of audio issues, the typewriter sound accompanying all the on-screen text does seem a bit tacky, but that's barely a plankton-sized complaint in the ocean of startling imagery and intense material presented in "Blackfish." Cowperthwaite's arguments may win over the heart more than they truly win over the mind, but they'll still make audiences think twice about where they go on their next family vacation.
Theaters and showtimes for Blackfish
Thanks for the extremely detailed review. Now I don't need to see the movie.
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