“Blackfish” review


Sea World was never really my favorite place in the world, mostly because marine animals seem unnatural to me. Yeah, you can have tons of fun with the silly otter shows, but, at the end of the day, they know a couple of giant squids that will gang up on you (and now that Pacific Rim has exposed the existence of Kaiju, they are more than willing to put the beat down in retaliation). However, there was definitely a period of time when I thought Shamu was the bee’s knees, and wanted to grow up to be him. (only 11, 800 pounds to go!). The killer whale has truly permeated culture as the badass of the sea, floating where no man has floated before, and doing tricks for minimal compensation that no man has done tricks for before.

In the words of my hero: “They aren’t tricks, Michael. They’re illusions!”

GOB: 1. Me: 0.

Blackfish is one of the rare films that can immerse you entirely in a world you had never considered. This movie succeeds because it doesn’t make the case that “Killer whales are intrinsically predators and should be let go”, or merely “They’re hurt inside their cages and made to do things that are innately unacceptable”. Instead, the filmmakers decide to go the far more intriguing route and portray the blackfish (title drop!) as near-human, particularly with the whale Tilikum that is portrayed as the “killer”. Being ripped away from his mother as a calf, regularly beaten by his companions, and generally misunderstood by those training him (a drastic oversimplification, but still true) present a scenario befitting the formation of a serial killer. Watching these horrible things happen to Tilikum inspire sympathy and understanding, and, most interesting, relation. The audience truly feels that his actions, though horrifying, are somewhat justified.

Thinking back on this film, I am impressed that the only way I can discuss Tilikum is as a human. Everything about him seems so relatable, from the interviews with his former trainers to the people who have watched him in the audience, that he becomes one of the most prolific animal beings to have graced the screen (my apologies to Uggie, whom I actively campaigned for to receive an Oscar nomination for The Artist).

However, one minor flaw with the film is that Tilikum cannot communicate with us. This whale that has killed two trainers (and a strange man who broke into his tank) will never demonstrate if this was just an act of playfulness gone wrong or an innate will to kill. Despite much speculation as to this regard, the film resolves to not make a straight answer. The two camps on either side, though, rise against the claims of the Sea World Corporation, who assert that the death of Dawn Brancheau was due to fault of her own.

This leaves Blackfish as a puzzling feature, in that we feel pity for such a majestic and beautiful creature but realize the power and terror he can inspire. It truly plays like an episode of a Criminal Minds-esque thriller. Though no questions are finally answered (except for the age-old adage, “Fuck big business”), Blackfish is engaging and memorable, and one of the most interesting pieces of film work I have seen in a long time.

Oscar Chances: The Documentary categories are always strange for Oscar, and they often leave off beloved choices for more politically-aware options (Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, you were mistreated). However, this has enough political punch and engaging story telling that I see no reason why it should be left off the Documentary shortlist.

Brief side-note, before you go back to the Internet: It is high time a documentary gets nominated for Best Picture. One of the most shining examples is Man On Wire, which you should watch the moment you get an opportunity. What does a film that shows real life have to do to get recognition?

That’s an essay for another time.