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by Eric Kohn
July 15, 2013 9:37 AM
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Review: 'Blackfish' Ensures You'll Never Go to SeaWorld Again

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.

READ MORE: SeaWorld Unleashes 8 Assertions About 'Blackfish' and Filmmakers Respond

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.

As a work of journalism, "Blackfish" delivers a fierce condemnation
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.

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  • JT | February 26, 2014 2:54 AMReply

    Seaworld is awesome. The movie is rubbish. Sesnsational, not scientific.

  • Max | February 20, 2014 8:31 PMReply

    Seaworld really should be illegal. period.

  • Firefly | November 24, 2013 6:25 AMReply

    I enjoyed this documentary, even if it did lack scientific background to why orcas aren't suited to captivity. If you are interested you can find my review here: http://fightingthebiocrisis.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/review-blackfish/

  • Gina C | January 27, 2014 12:03 PM

    How about it's just wrong, unethical and inhumane?

  • CHISEL | November 7, 2013 1:32 PMReply

    NEVER Will I Support Sea World or Any Facility The Like. It's Crazy How We All Knew This Was A Bad Idea Right In Front Of Our Eyes But This Doc Had To Be Made & Even Though It Was Extremely Hard To Watch I'm Glad I Did. These Animals Are So Emotional Toward There Own Family That Live Long Lives Just Like Humans & To Have There Young Ripped Away & Hear How They Would Scream..... Will Haunt Me For A Long Time. NEVER!

  • Lynn | November 7, 2013 9:22 AMReply

    I will never support Sea World after watching the abuse of the trainers and the animals. I want them closed down and all those animals set free....Now

  • tricia | October 28, 2013 2:05 PMReply

    This is not ok - Free Tilly - HE has done enough for the Greedy Humans. Let him live the rest of his life free in the Ocean in his home.

    How could you let this happen?? With such Awesome Whales. It Hurst's me and I am not at the park in the company- How are you able to deal with the guilt???

    I have visited 5 times I am sick to my stomach and in tears that I bought tickets to Sea World. I will no longer be doing my yearly visit. I am on Facebook with all my contacts sharing the info also.

    Contact information for Fred Jacobs:

    Please right reviews and contact the below person let him know how you feel about the whales

    Fred Jacobs

    Vice President, Communications

    SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

    E-mail: Fred.Jacobs@SeaWorld.com

  • SW | July 15, 2013 7:32 PMReply

    People need to get their facts right. No known incidents of attacks against humans have been recorded in the wild?? How about this boy in Alaska?
    So if one simple fact like that is already false, how can we believe anything else that they are telling us? Just saying. People need to do their own research and make up their own minds about things, and not just blindly follow and believe what others are telling you.

  • B | July 16, 2013 2:43 AM

    SW, did you even read the story you provide the link for? It doesn't describe an attack. It says the whale bumped the boy, then went away.

    ""I suspect that the whale that approached thought he was a harbor seal splashing," said John Ford, a researcher of killer whales with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans' Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C."

    That's not an attack. It's mistaken identity.

    It then goes on to say:

    "There has never been a documented fatal killer-whale attack on a human. The only relatively well-documented bite was one suffered by a surfer in California in the early 1970s."

    Confirming the point that attacks haven't been seen in the wild.

  • Aeneas | July 15, 2013 4:27 PMReply

    I thought this review was intelligent and as fair as it could be given SeaWorld's lack of cooperation. And it is a movie review, after all, not a work of investigative journalism. So, thank you.

    And as regards the film, I think it is an important work. Like many parents, I took my kids to SeaWorld when they were young because they were dying to go--and we never imagined what goes on behind the scenes. And for that matter, naive as it now seems, we never suspected that the animal shows were controlled more by corporate greed than animal scientists. After this film we'll never go again. And red herring criticsms about the movie poster or whales being mammals doesn't change the shocking nature of SeaWorld's practices, or minimize the film's importance.

  • Hector | July 15, 2013 4:26 PMReply

    It's wracked with guilt not wrecked by guilt.

  • Julie Rulon Greene | July 15, 2013 2:38 PMReply

    The 18th Annual Stony Brook Film Festival screens 'Blackfish' on Thursday, July 25 at 7:00 pm. The Festival runs from July 18-27.

  • this guy | July 15, 2013 2:12 PMReply

    If you really want to sea Whales and Dolphins you go on a harbor cruise or a whale watching tour for 25% of the price of Sea World. If you are an ignorant tourist - you go to sea world.

  • Mandii | July 15, 2013 2:03 PMReply

    Circus' do the same thing as sea world. I've never attended either, and never plan to. It's cruel. They have a life too and don't deserve to be taken from their habitats and forced to be another species entertainment and die that way. That's what we have Hollywood for. Damn cruel.

  • Floyd | July 15, 2013 2:34 PM

    As shocking as it is to believe Circus animals are treated far better than the animals at seaworld.

  • Drew | July 15, 2013 1:54 PMReply

    Horray!! More videos of Shamu! I love going to Sea World and seeing the Dolphins!

  • MSK | July 15, 2013 1:28 PMReply

    This review asserts that 'Blackfish' makes the same point over and over by making the same point over and over. Brilliant literary mechanism or redundant review? You decide.

  • former seaworld employee | July 15, 2013 1:12 PMReply

    As a former employee, the Orcas were a threat to my safety. One day, the held up the snackbar I was working at. They also shoplifted from the gift shop and stole the hubcaps off my car in the employee lot

  • uhyeah | July 15, 2013 1:39 PM

    i doubt you have ever held a job, stfu

  • r0nald | July 15, 2013 11:58 AMReply

    Yes! Your review is right on the money, The movie portraits the cruelty done to magnificent animals to provide cheap thrills.

  • Rey | July 16, 2013 5:33 AM

    Hahahahahha Orca oh my god thank you for making my night. 'Blackfish is a stupid name for a poster, they're mammals' AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHA you have no idea how hard I laughed. *wipes tears from eyes* Thank you. Thank you.
    People who make comments like that are why the internet is so very, very entertaining. Oh my god. It hurts. Lol!

  • Zuber | July 15, 2013 3:42 PM

    Wow Orca your an idiot, Blackfish is what the native americans called the Orca, they have been experiencing these animals before your dumb a** was born. The reason they have to have a poster like that is so people will watch it, what have you done to protect Orcas?? You sit behind a computer and criticize.

  • Orca | July 15, 2013 3:17 PM

    The movie looks pretty sensational and tacky itself, between the title (they are mammals), the horror movie-esque poster and the insistence upon calling orca "killer whales." Doubt they have any interest in saving the whales, killer or otherwise. Just an attempt to capitalize on the success of the Cove. Even the end of the review talks about how much money it's going to make rather than how many lives it's going to save.

    Facts would be a lot more effective than catchy but scientifically inaccurate titles and creepy movie posters if they want to be taken seriously. The people who don't like Sea World still won't and nobody else will be swayed because their presentation is so over the top and sensationalized.

  • Teresa Wagner | July 15, 2013 11:11 AMReply

    Bravo! SeaWorld is a nothing more than a prison making money from the inmates forced to perform.

  • jack | February 20, 2014 8:35 PM