Blackfish is a disturbing, effective documentary about the dangers of keeping orca whales in captivity.
Normally a film like The Cove – the 2009 recipient of the Academy Award for Best Documentary – would make me roll my eyes, but its message of the sanctity of dolphin life actually affected me more deeply than I ever could have imagined. Also, my viewing of the film sparked an eternal contempt for Sea World. I had expected that the new documentary Blackfish would be trying to capitalize on the success of The Cove when considering its central goal being to oppose the captivity of killer whales. With that in mind, will Blackfish have the same impact as its counterpart?
The story of Blackfish more or less begins with the capturing of multiple orcas off the coast of Iceland in 1983, which included a very young male named Tilikum. Over the years this killer whale became infamous for the deaths of three different individuals; however, one death that the film specifically focuses on is the controversial attack on prolific SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau. After her brutal death, the park then came under fire by both marine life activists and law investigations as to the ethics behind killer whale captivity. From there, Blackfish begins to explore the controversy behind all that occurs in marine parks, the lives of captive orcas and then the truth behind all three deaths.
As I had noted before, I have a deep affection for the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, so I didn’t think that this film would work with me on the same level. However, I was proven wrong. While Blackfish is a clumsily-paced film – it only runs for 80+ minutes but it seemed much longer – it remained compelling from beginning to end. It was always clear what sort of goal director Gabriela Cowperthwaite had in mind with the consistent anti-captivity vibe, and the film makes things interesting by balancing the investigation with interviews with people who experienced the film’s events firsthand. It’s also interesting that Blackfish roots most of its emotion through its human (if not orca) elements. The film focuses itself on showing that the captivity of killer whales has ravaged the souls of those disillusioned by the business, which then transforms Blackfish into a powerful story about human folly. Even then, the filmmakers have succeeded in making us pity the whales themselves beyond simply being engaged in the investigation at hand.
So yes, the filmmakers were successful at turning me over to their side. I will say that in some ways Blackfish does fall prey to clichés – those of the investigative documentary in particular. These are mainly found in the way that the film is edited, along with the way that the team factored the interviews into their case. Even so, it’s impressive how the team behind Blackfish managed to get their point across successfully without having to be heavy-handed. In fact, it’s very appealing on a human level since the case presented for the killer whales of this film is a sympathetic one. Cowperthwaite clearly wanted me to believe that captivity of these majestic creatures is a dangerous thing, and I bought into that. I also appreciated the way imagery and audio is implemented as well, even though the CG graphics used to describe certain situations was slightly ineffective. The filmmakers juxtapose certain messages with archive footage and old SeaWorld; that approach may prove to be cheesy in other films, but here it works magnificently. Also, the violence showcased in archived footage is undeniably disturbing, but it works to the level of proving the potential danger of keeping orcas in captivity.
In the end, Blackfish rises above the standards of the average nature documentary into a very effective emotional ride. While it is certainly bogged down by its pacing and its adherence to certain genre conventions, Blackfish has the power to change the hearts of even the most hardened individuals. Mixing archived footage, interviews and raw emotion together into one unique piece of filmmaking, Blackfish not only works to convince its audience of the overall problems orcas face, but how they are effective to those involved on a human level. Even if you are not very sensitive to animal rights issues, you won’t be able to deny the sheer power at play in this surprisingly good piece of work.