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'Blackfish' movie review: Compelling doc explores impact of keeping killer whale



What caused a killer whale named Tilikum, who had been entertaining crowds for two decades, to suddenly and brutally murder longtime SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010? Many theories have been put forth since the case made national headlines, and now the new documentary Blackfish, opening in Atlanta Aug. 2, dives into the murky waters in search of some clarity.

Tilikum in a scene from BLACKFISH, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Suzanne Allee

In her quest to get answers, writer/director Gabriela Cowperthwaite turns the clock back 40 years, as hunters off the coast of Washington rip young killer whales from the water, separating them from their families. The story of the pursuit and the eyewitness account of the orcas’ mourned cries establish these creatures’ intelligence and deep familial bonds.

From that starting point, Cowperthwaite’s fascinating doc leaps across time and continents, charting the history of killer whales in captivity from the Sealand Aquarium in Canada to the Loro Parque Zoo in Spain. At the center of it all, of course, is SeaWorld, the legendary theme park and home to Tilikum since the early 1990s – when he was purchased from Sealand following his involvement in a tragedy there.

To help tell the story, Cowperthwaite interviews an impressive range of former SeaWorld trainers, several who worked at the park in the ‘90s and others who just finished up their tour within the last few years. They provide a valuable look at the bond formed between orca and trainer.

In many cases, they also convey a growing sense of discomfort with the killer whales’ living conditions and an unease regarding the gap between what the public sees and what happens behind closed doors. Cowperthwaite is merciless in showing archival footage of these trainers spouting out SeaWorld scripted lines, and their shame at their previous actions gives Blackfish added credibility.

In addition to interviews with trainers and scientists, Blackfish features an array of archival footage. Some of the video, such as underwater images of the killer whales and their trainers, is breathtaking. Others, like the 1999 footage of a SeaWorld diver repeatedly dragged to the bottom of the pool before narrowly escaping, is harrowing.

Cowperthwaite’s documentary raises thorny questions about the moral implications of keeping killer whales in captivity under the types of conditions prevalent at SeaWorld – not to mention lower-budget theme parks where living quarters are more cramped and employees less well trained. And for the most part, Blackfish makes its points in clinical, persuasive fashion.

There are a few heavy-handed missteps, such as a misguided coda that doesn’t trust viewers to reach their own conclusions. But elsewhere, Blackfish scores points for making an effort to show differing points of view. Though SeaWorld declined to comment – at least until the film was released – former SeaWorld trainer Mark Simmons provides a welcome counterpoint to the rest of the interview subjects.

Through it all, Brancheau’s presence looms over the film, and by the time Blackfish reaches its conclusion, the official corporate party line concerning her death rings false, regardless of whether you see eye to eye with Cowperthwaite. Though not constructed as a thriller like the dolphin-focused, Oscar-winning doc The Cove, Blackfish nonetheless unspools with an urgency that demands your attention.

Grade: B+

"Blackfish" opens in Atlanta on August 2 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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