Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s awareness doc Blackfish makes a compelling argument to not place orcas in captivity. Opening with the death of beloved SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau at the jaws of killer whale Tilikum, the film then leaps back to the animal’s youth and ably investigates what went wrong. Through copious interviews with those who’ve worked with Tilikum and experts who expand on the nature of orcas, viewers come to feel horrible for Tilikum, a clear victim of his environment at the hands of greedy owners. So, yes, mission accomplished on the filmmakers’ part content-wise, but cinematically the work is little more than standard non-fiction.
In terms of stating her case, Cowperthwaite knows how to spin a powerful yarn. Disillusioned ex-SeaWorld trainers convey the genuine love once held for their jobs and which continues for their former animal co-workers. Looked upon as experts by the theme park’s attendees, they now freely admit minimal knowledge about killer whales, which the true authorities are happy to provide. Through passionate insight from orca researcher Howard Garrett on the beasts’ kindness in nature and neuroscientist Lori Marino on their intelligence, social nature, and emotional maturity, an authentic picture emerges. Paired with refreshing sights of orcas in their rightful habitat and the overarching concept of no documented case where an orca has harmed a human in the wild, and the concept of keeping these creatures free becomes common sense.
SeaWorld’s direct absence despite being asked to partake makes for a one-sided discussion, though evidence of the company’s involvement in such matters are damning. Fittingly, it’s in some of these instances that Blackfish flexes its imaginative muscles. Forced to improvise in depicting OSHA’s case against SeaWorld that stemmed from Brancheau’s death, the filmmakers make dialogue between lawyer and witness thrilling by simply displaying both quotes at once. Later uses of straightforward courtroom animation, sans audio, with the words appearing next to each respective figure are further engaging and, along with a clean drawn depiction of an orca capture, show signs of distinction. Still, that’s about as flashy as things get.
Interspersed with SeaWorld promotional videos that look asinine next to the facts, Blackfish grows all the more tragic when discussing Tilikum’s degrading mind and his current whereabouts. In perhaps its grand message, the film renders sympathetic viewers into potential doers and rallies support around a problem that, with the right amount of support, could be fixed. (Also, in a matter crucial to his predicament, if you’ve ever wanted to see an orca penis, get ready. Free Willy, indeed.) For this end and other highs along the way, Cowperthwaite clearly has the gift of storytelling. Now, if she could get a little more help for her filmmaking to rise above the documentary masses, she’d be set.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images.
Blackfish is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
Category: Asheville film