Movie Review: Blackfish
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Reviewed: 24 January 2014
jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2
The new documentary Blackfish has stuck with me for approximately a month since I have seen it. I usually do not let a film sit for that long before writing about it, and there was no intention behind this delay. However, after a month, I still find myself riveted by the footage compiled by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. I don't think I'll ever consider going to SeaWorld after viewing this film.
Blackfish aims straight for its audience, throwing us into a shadowy world of SeaWorld corporate greed, mistreatment of whales, bitter former staff, and an assemblage of violent mishaps within their pools. Should we keep whales in captivity? Are we upsetting nature by traumatically separating whale calves from their mothers? Should whales only exist in the ocean? Some of the film suffers by never having a mouthpiece from the opposing side. But, much like some of Michael Moore's documentary work, the bringing of the case against a giant corporation is a titanic feat, and I found myself riveted.
Cowperthwaite focuses on orca whale named Tilikum's captivity and the whale's connection to three different fatalities including a renowned whale trainer. Some of the footage is cobbled together from security cameras at SeaWorld; other footage is taken from audience members at shows where whale behavior becomes erratic. It is unsettling to see some of the behavior: shocking, surprising, and very scary. When juxtaposed against the company's commercials of floating whales and smiles, the aggressive behavior and bloody scrapes become even more upsetting.
The film raises troubling questions, but the closest it ever gets to a target are some SeaWorld executives walking out of court. One scientist posits that the whale brain has an even bigger emotional core than the human brain, and that emotional connectivity makes captivity and separation from family even more traumatic. It is impossible not to be sympathetic to the whales, scraped and confined in small cages, starved to perform in daily shows for audiences, and the film shows the folded over fin as a symbol of a captive whale (something that never happens in the wild). It is impossible not to be sympathetic for former trainers, ashamed of their past behaviors, riddled with guilt for mistreatment of these magnificent creatures. It is impossible not to fully believe that a corporation consumed with profit would neglect its whales and its trainers. What takes Blackfish to the next level for me is a decision later in the film to show how Tilikum's sperm has been used to impregnate many other captive whales, possibly spreading the reach of this emotionally damaged animal. And SeaWorld at the same time has that same capability: their training has led to incidents in less well-known locations and facilities. There are questions of responsibility and ownership haunting this film, and the ending seems to posit that the only way to enjoy a whale should be from a boat in the ocean. Is Blackfish the logical extension of what happens when for-profit corporations own a piece of the natural world?
I love visiting the Houston Zoo, a zoo that I believe has a good track record of care with its animals. The cages seem clean, the outdoor facilities spacious, and I have enjoyed taking my son there. Where is the line between appreciation for nature and exploitation of it? Both SeaWorld and the Houston Zoo charge for admission. Is the difference that SeaWorld trains its whales to perform unnatural tricks for the benefits of a human audience? The Zoo isn't having trainers ride on the backs of its animals. In a digital age where documentaries and websites can take us as close as can be to animals in the wild, what is the benefit from being splashed by a whale, seeing a giraffe up close, or watching an elephant be fed? There is something breathtaking about that transaction: seeing an animal up close. Should there be different expectations for keeping land animals captive versus marine life? I find myself asking way more questions in this review than I normally do. I don't have the answers. I appreciate Blackfish for pushing my thinking and provoking me, but I also do not know if its ideas regarding 2014 solutions to this problem go deep enough. Their notion of ending whale captivity and shutting down SeaWorld might seem as shallow as one of the pools they lambaste in their film.