If Blackfish were an Inside Edition episode, the promo copy might read something like this: Twenty years after Keltie Byrne was brutally killed in 1991, Dawn Brancheau, a marine-mammal trainer like Byrne, became a victim of the same killer — who to this day goes unpunished.
The killer, as you may have already deduced, isn't human. He's a massive orca called Tilikum, a 6-ton bull who performs at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. And Blackfish is no Inside Edition hype job, but rather a lean and dramatic activist documentary that argues a case for the inherent danger and immorality of holding these so-called killer whales — a misnomer, many say — in captivity.
The film, it should be said, does not blame Tilikum for his actions. It posits instead that, like a disenfranchised youth driven to a life of crime, Tilikum is a product of his upbringing.
The true culprits, from the film's standpoint, are made clear from the get-go, and they're not the whales but those who keep them: the head honchos at SeaWorld, which, we are told, keeps its whales in enclosures barely big enough to contain them and regularly separates whales from their families. (SeaWorld, in a public relations effort launched in advance of Blackfish's theatrical release, has disputed this assertion, among others in the film.)
Years of this kind of treatment, the film argues, leads to the kind of aggressive behavior that Tilikum and other whales have displayed. This means that SeaWorld's decision to keep them in captivity and have trainers perform elaborate shows with them constitutes not just suspect ethics but a willful disregard for human safety.
SeaWorld declined to give interviews for the film, but its point of view is clear both from old TV footage and from court transcripts shown in the film, as well as the recent PR campaign. Not surprisingly, SeaWorld holds that any aggression by the whales has been a result of a trainer's mistake and that the theme park's treatment of animals is completely humane.
Mostly these replies constitute denials of Blackfish's substantiated accusations. But one interesting rebuttal SeaWorld makes is that the film trades in unwarranted anthropomorphism, particularly when it claims that captivity leads to "bullying" among the whales.
If there's a hurdle that Blackfish must leap to convince us of its cause, it's in this arena. There are a lot of "he seemed" statements in the movie when referring to Tilikum: "He seemed to enjoy working with the trainers." "In the morning, he seemed to be happy to see us." The most common word used to describe Tilikum's state of mind, meanwhile, is "frustrated." It's even suggested that he suffers from a psychosis.
The use of human characteristics could be seen as a manipulative way of framing a description of Tilikum's ... state of mind? But even when Blackfish lands strongly on the side of psychological conjecture, it's still difficult not to side with the filmmakers, who bring out experts to testify that orcas live rich emotional lives and have a distinct sense of self.
More to the point, the stories of cruelty that Blackfish recounts are disturbing enough that even if orcas don't have a sense of self, even if they don't form social bonds "much stronger, much more complex than in other mammals," as one interviewee suggests, the whales' treatment at the hands of SeaWorld — for the mere purpose of human entertainment — would still be unacceptable.
Such is Blackfish's message, and it's a compelling one. But as with many other documentaries of its kind, there's little attention paid to the medium. Blackfish offers no particularly interesting accomplishments in the style department. It shifts as necessary among interviews, archival footage and explanatory slide-show panels, the crude graphics of which suggest that the film is more interested in what it's saying than in how it looks.
And yet this argument never fails to be gripping, its structure perfectly executed to maximize its persuasiveness. For the first hour, the growing evidence of what looks like mistreatment draws you in. And director Gabriela Cowperthwaite saves her more shocking material — footage of some of Tilikum's attacks on trainers — until later in the film, at which point a five or 10-minute sequence not only prevents any lulls but, as if to say, "Do you get it yet?" drives home what's at stake — at SeaWorld, and presumably anywhere else where orcas live the way they do there.