VOD film review: Blackfish
Chris Blohm | On 03, Sep 2013
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Fishy health-and-safety take-down Blackfish arrives on a wave of hyperbole that most films would have difficulty riding with any degree of grace or style. Yet it’s testament to director Gabriela Cowperthwaite that her sophomore movie really is one of the most devastating things you’ll see this year. What an exciting, new talent. And what a terrific film.
That’s easy for us to say, of course. Given the harrowing subject matter, it’s unlikely this shocking expose of SeaWorld’s dodgy professional practises would ever attract too much in the way of negative attention. This is worthy with a capital “W”, and the kind of film you’ll hear folk endlessly debating over a latte or three at the nearest Starbucks. But get beyond that initial layer of earnestness, and there’s much to admire in this ecological rabble-rouser.
In 2010, expert trainer Dawn Brancheau was performing a killer whale show at Sea World in Orlando when her beloved Tilicum, a 12,000lb pound orca, grabbed her left arm in his jaws, and dragged Brancheau down to the bottom of the display pool, drowning her in full view of a grandstand packed with paying spectators.
Blackfish investigates exactly what would drive an orca whale like Tilicum, animals that are usually very social and benign in their natural habitat, to such extreme behaviour when held in captivity. The film’s conclusions are blunt and perhaps not entirely surprising; specifically, how would you feel if you were stolen away from your parents as a child, trapped in a concrete cage for the rest of your life, and forced to perform in exchange for food? You’d probably go mad too.
Questions are also raised about the management of SeaWorld, one of the most recognisable theme park brands in the world, and the extent to which it will protect that brand. A wealth of testimony, primarily from ex-Sea World trainers, all friends and colleagues of Brancheau, builds a grim picture of employee safety repeatedly being compromised, and suppressed evidence of dangerous animal behaviour over the course of two decades.
The film is very much a classic documentary. A resolutely old school mix of brand new interviews and archival footage, and it doesn’t do anything new or radical with the format. But the story at the film’s core is terrifying enough without the need for bells or whistles. And now that it’s available to stream, there’s really no excuse for not getting involved in the conversation.