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Blackfish – Documentary Movie Review

This moving documentary goes behind the scenes at marine parks where orcas have injured and sometimes killed their trainers. The film looks at the cost to humans and mammals when these wild animals are forced to spend their lives in captivity, performing stunts for a piece of fish, praise from the trainers, and a round of applause from the audience.

The History of Tilikum

Documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite painstakingly interviews animal experts, former animal trainers, and eye witnesses, uses old film footage and newspaper articles, and examines the courtroom case involving the fatal attack of veteran killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum, the killer whale also responsible for the deaths of two other trainers. Going far beyond traditional news coverage, Blackfish delivers raw emotions, shocking footage, and scientific explanations combined with moral questions about sacrificing an animal’s freedom for human entertainment.

Cowperthwaite’s research reveals the heightened emotional component in the brains of orcas. Their intelligence and sensitivity – the very traits that make them such wonderful entertainers – make them unsuitable to a life in captivity, according to some experts in the film. They suggest this confinement (especially having a male trapped with aggressive female killer whales that attacked him daily) traumatized Tilikum and turned him into a killing machine. Others remind the audience the word “killer” is already built right into the animal’s name.

Sea World Not Directly Interviewed

Sea World, where the Brancheau attack occurred, did not participate in the making of this film. Even so, the popular marine attraction (with its various locations) is present throughout the movie – in news footage, personal and promotional film footage, newspaper articles, court documents, and shown in a commercial in which a killer whale gives birth at the Orlando attraction. Interviews with former Sea World employees also address the park’s philosophies and safety procedures.

Although Sea World does not address the specific charges brought up in the film within the movie itself, its position seems fairly clear in the cited material: marine parks bridge the gap between humans and ocean creatures by allowing both to learn about the other. The knowledge we acquire about these mammals is then used to provide better health care for them and a safer environment for us.

Even so, it’s hard to watch Cowperthwaite’s fascinating documentary without taking sides. The question in most viewer’s minds as they watch trainers being killed and maimed, and sensitive animals torn from their families and forced to endure often torturous situations, will surely be: “Is human entertainment and education worth the cost to these animals?” Like any good documentary, Blackfish should open viewers’ minds to consider new ways of thinking and behaving.

Blackfish

  • This documentary explores various aspects of marine animals in captivity.
  • Starring Kim Ashdown, Samatha Berg, Dave Duffus, Daniel Dukes, Daniel Patrick Dukes, Howard Garrett, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Carol Ray, Tilikum, Jeffrey Ventre
  • Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
  • Writers: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B. Despres
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 83 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images)