Nobody from SeaWorld agreed to an interview for "Blackfish," Gabriela Cowperthwaite's searing take on the theme park's mistreatment of killer whales and the dozens of deaths that have resulted from it. Instead, the majority of its subjects are ex-SeaWorld trainers frustrated by the negligence they witnessed up close and willing to speak out. Nevertheless, based on the evidence on display in "Blackfish," Cowperthwaite's case against SeaWorld would change little with an opposing point of view. The movie makes a strong case against the captivity of killer whales under sub-circus conditions, but the stance is made even more horrifying because so little has changed in the history of the organization. "Blackfish" is less balanced investigation than full-on takedown of a broken system.
Cowperthwaite's framing device is the February 2010 death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was ripped to shreds by the notorious Tilikum, a whale responsible for two other deaths along with other human injuries since getting captured in the early 1980s. However, "Blackfish" tracks countless other incidents across several decades of orca whale training, all of which coalesce into a stinging assertion that SeaWorld both relies on animal abuse and carelessly puts its employees in constant danger.
It's one thing to hear disgruntled former employees and activists complain, but "Blackfish" draws much of its disturbing power from a plethora of video documentation showing various attacks. In every case, the aggressive whales initially come across to their naive caretakers as well-adjusted beings. "I liked to think the relationship was about more than fish," says one former trainer. It's that presumed two-way bond that enables trainers to justify their work; the ongoing contrast between footage of grinning young recruits hopping about with whales and the tearful reminiscences they provide for the camera provides a devastating critique of the anthropomorphizing forces that fuel the animal business.
Cowperthwaite threads recollections and archival footage together into an engrossing overview. However, because "Blackfish" barely exists in the present moment -- aside from an epilogue, the story begins and ends with the 2010 tragedy -- the limitation prevents it from injecting its story with the immediacy that the filmmaker clearly strives to obtain. Still, "Blackfish" forms an effective case against the entire institution of SeaWorld by placing it in a terrifying historical context.
Flashing back to 1970, the movie tracks the initial Washington state attack in which SeaWorld hired fishermen to illegally kidnap infant orcas from their mothers. This well-documented event takes on particular gravitas in a contemporary account by one of the fishermen from the hunt, a man wrecked by guilt as he recalls his order to hide the accidental deaths of several whales by loading their carcasses with rocks. His candid admission stands in for the lack of similarly forthcoming SeaWorld bureaucrats.
As a work of journalism, "Blackfish" delivers a fierce condemnation: No clandestine maneuver on SeaWorld's part could possibly discount the destructive impact of orca captivity proven herein. The documentary's title, a reference to a Native American name for the animals, points to the majestic, reverential authority they assert in the wild -- a freedom drained when they get stuck in claustrophobic tanks. "Try spending most of your life in a bathtub," someone says. "See if it doesn't make you a little psychotic."
The pile-up of anecdotes and rants make SeaWorld's entire operation look criminal. However, "Blackfish" often repeats the same assertions in its various cases of deadly incidents, deadening the argument by its final third. But even when it has already established the main line of attack, the movie retains a compelling accusatory tone.
To justify the ex-trainers' profound empathy for the orcas, Cowperthwaite includes scientific proof of their intelligence, including a brain scan that demonstrates their "highly elaborate emotional lives." The evidence piles up in the fragments of images and factoids, including the bent fins that afflict many captive whales and the assertion that no known incidents of attacks against humans have been recorded in the wild.
Because it involves the abuse of intelligent sea animals, the easiest point of comparison in the non-fiction arena is the dolphin slaughter exposé "The Cove," but a more relevant precedent of recent memory is "Project Nim," in which an ill-fated attempt to domesticate chimps leads to the realization that you can't tame nature. "Blackfish" hails from that same school of thought, making the unsettling case that SeaWorld's live acts of entertainment are in fact a expensively veiled form of torture.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? After premiering in competition at Sundance, "Blackfish" has been playing at various festivals to strong acclaim. Buzz around its topic, including a condemnation from SeaWorld itself, should help drum up publicity and push the movie toward a solid returns as Magnolia Pictures releases it in several theaters this Wednesday.
A version of this review ran during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.