Blackfish

Review by Ashley Clark @_Ash_Clark

Directed by

Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Starring

Dave Duffus Samantha Berg Tilikum

Anticipation.

Sounds horrific yet intriguing.

Enjoyment.

Sad and shocking, but frustrating.

In Retrospect.

Important, informative, imperfect.

When Orcas attack! Gabriela Cowperthwaite reveals the seamy underside of family water parks.

The focus of this ecologically engaged documentary is orca Tilikum, who made headlines in 2010 upon killing his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, during an exercise at Florida’s SeaWorld theme park. Was Dawn, like the bear-munched subject of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man playing a dangerous game with nature? The dubious suggestion from company bigwigs that Brancheau was the architect of her own downfall (by sporting a too-long ponytail) prompted skeptical director Gabriela Cowperthwaite to investigate further.

Cowperthwaite traces the origins of the story back to 1983, when Tilikum was first captured and consigned to life in an aquatic amusement park. Mixing upsetting archive footage of Tilikum’s maltreatment with informed comment from scientists and regretful early participants, the director makes a convincing case against the captivity of whales and suggests, troublingly, that Tilikum’s enforced impoundment may have influenced destructive actions; though the whale was performing in 2010, Brancheau was actually his third human victim.

Blackfish channels righteous ire at Tilikum’s unethical treatment, but it’s less successful in its attempts to build a conspiracy thriller narrative, starting with the double-bluff opening sequence of mismatched audio and video which deviously suggests we’re about to actually witness the death of Brancheau (we don’t). It’s a queasy, sensationalistic slice of audience manipulation that compromises the ensuing film’s strident moral focus.

Tilikum’s first killings are sketchily addressed and while Cowperthwaite is understandably eager to portray the waterpark industry as a mendacious cover-up outfit, she fails to provide a compelling portrait of how they are structured or who should be held accountable. The lack of any robust interrogation extends to the lives of the trainers; one feels further insight into their motivations would have made for far richer viewing.

Published 25 Jul 2013

Anticipation.

Sounds horrific yet intriguing.

Enjoyment.

Sad and shocking, but frustrating.

In Retrospect.

Important, informative, imperfect.

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