Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Opens at the Charles Theatre Aug. 2
In 1983, a three-year-old male orca was captured off the coast of Iceland. In the wild, he would have remained with his pod for the entirety of his lifespan-roughly equivalent to that of a human being's. Instead, he was driven to the shallows by speedboats and herded into nets by men hurling explosives. Separated from his mother, he was plucked from his ocean home and given the name "Tilikum," the Chinook word for tribe.
Young Tilikum, the focus of the first half of Blackfish, was kept in a small pool with a pair of dominant whales from another tribe. He was trained by working with these older whales, and when he failed to properly execute a new trick, both he and the older orcas were punished and deprived of food in hopes that the older whales would teach him proper behavior. At night, the whales were moved into a cramped, unlit metal pool barely big enough to allow movement. The dominant whales often beat Tilikum with their rostrums, the hard snouts orcas often use as weapons, and raked him with their 3-inch long teeth. When trainers returned in the mornings, Tilikum was frequently bleeding. Three decades later, the now-massive 12,000-pound orca still bears those scars. It's hardly a wonder he became a killer.
In 1991, Tilikum took his first victim, a young trainer named Keltie Byrne. Byrne was walking beside his pool when she slipped. SeaWorld, Tilikum's current owner, maintains that Tilikum didn't kill Byrne, but witnesses claim he dragged her to her death. The second death came eight years later. Trainers arrived in the morning to find a naked, bloody corpse draped over his back. SeaWorld claims the man-who snuck into the park evidently to swim with the whale-died of hypothermia, but his body was covered in tooth marks and the whale had eaten his genitals. Tilikum's third victim was another trainer. He grabbed her from the stage and dragged her to the bottom of his pool. She died while SeaWorld patrons watched.
Blackfish, at its best, plunges through the dark, deep mind of this sad killer. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite weaves together a collection of old SeaWorld stock footage, news stories, shaky home video, and interviews with whale experts and trainers. Tight close-ups and static security-cam shots lend the film a sense of claustrophobia that parallels the story of the captive whales. Footage of wild orcas, families together in long lines, enormous dorsal fins towering above the sea, contrasts starkly with SeaWorld footage: grainy images, reminiscent of CCT footage from a prison, of giant whales floating motionless, dorsal fins drooping flaccidly over their saddle-patch backs.
SeaWorld, the billion-dollar entertainment juggernaut, granted no access or interviews to Cowperthwaite; even had they participated, no amount of PR spin could help. The company comes across as the twisted love child of Charlie Manson and Bernie Madoff, fresh from a crash course in Orwellian doublespeak. If you have ever delighted in the aquatic antics of Shamu, Blackfish will sour that joy.
Even beside harrowing footage of whales attacking trainers, the film's most effective scene comes in an interview with John Crowe, a diver who captured orcas for SeaWorld in the '70s. Crowe recounts one hunt in particular. Having been targeted before, the whales knew only the young would be taken. The childless adults fled on the water's surface into a cul-de-sac, sacrificing themselves to lead the SeaWorld team away from the young. Meanwhile, the mothers dove, leading their calves in a different direction. Unfortunately, the whales couldn't know they were being followed by plane. When they surfaced to breathe, SeaWorld's hunters returned. Three orcas drowned in the nets, and Crowe was ordered to cut open the dead whales, fill their bodies with rocks, and sink the carcasses to hide the slaughter.
Cowperthwaite masterfully and ruthlessly-with little regard for viewers' squeamishness-substantiates both the intelligence of the orca and the inhumanity of SeaWorld. But the film's second half flounders as it shifts focus from killer to captors. Tilikum and his tragic humanity (for lack of a better word) fade from the story. The film becomes about SeaWorld's unsafe working conditions, and Cowperthwaite fails to evoke the same sympathy for human victims that she does whales. This is not to say that the humans' stories are not supremely affecting-a scene where a whale toys with a trainer, repeatedly dragging him to the bottom of her pool, is particularly chilling-but we never know his victims as intimately as we know Tilikum.
Blackfish strikes viewers but in the end is let down by a lack of faith in itself. There is a sense that Cowperthwaite doesn't feel that the barbarism SeaWorld inflicts upon these whales is enough, that the audience needs human tragedy to truly care. By separating these themes rather than showing them as two sides of the same cruel coin, she undercuts the film's power. In the end, we learn that SeaWorld lost a federal court case and that trainers are no longer allowed in the water with orcas. This provides an odd near-closure that misses the true heart of the film; Crowe, the old diver, hits closer to the mark when he says, "This is the worst thing I ever done, is hunt that whale."