I know that the byline above is Amanda’s, but that’s because her review is the new one here and the one that prompted this post. Figured we’d try something interesting here: comparing a review for a movie that thought it was good (mine) versus one that thought it was great (Amanda’s). We have a tendency to think in binary terms, 1s and 0s, either/or. But the truth is, you can often find more truth about something by examining the shades of grey…not those kinds of shades of grey. Damn you softcore porn fan fiction for stealing a go-to phrase from me! Movie dialogue shouldn’t just be “that movie sucks” or “that movie rules.” It should be more nuanced than that. So here’s nuanced. Here’s Amanda’s review, followed by mine. Read both and see where they overlap and divide, hopefully it will enrich your appreciation of the film in general. Happy Friday!
Breaking news: You know those giant, majestic, ocean-dwelling creatures with the first name “killer?” Turns out if you lock them in tiny spaces it kills them, and if you get in with them they kill you. Nothing says “family fun” like aquatic murder and animal mistreatment, right SeaWorld?
Blackfish is less a documentary and more a 83-minute hit job on the aforementioned tourist attraction. Writer/director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and cowriter Eli B. Despres gather a murderer’s row of eye witnesses, mostly former trainers, to describe in explicit detail how explicitly messed up things are at SeaWorld, further besmirching Florida’s routinely besmirched reputation.
The film primarily focuses on one whale: Tilikum. Why focus on this one whale? Well, because he’s basically a serial killer whale, having caused the death of three separate trainers on three separate occasions. You’d think that the acceptable limit for whale murder would be somewhere around zero, but SeaWorld guidelines are apparently a bit lax. The most well-known victim was Dawn Brancheau, a widely respected trainer beloved by her coworkers. If you think the anti-SeaWorld message is a bit harsh, consider that after Dawn was killed, the corporation tried to say it was her fault for “wearing a ponytail.” Nevermind that Tilikum didn’t grab her by her ponytail and that the hairstyle is acceptable for trainers.
This mimics earlier deaths, where the blame was shifted onto the human in the water and not the giant sea creature that totally shouldn’t be there. Almost as bad as making it sound like their employees died due to their own negligence: SeaWorld worked to spread lies about killer whales to make themselves look better. They’d say they lived longer in captivity when they lived half as long or that “dorsal fin collapse” as is seen in almost every captive male orca is common when it happens in less than 1% in the wild.
In case you hadn’t picked up on it, there’s no overall narrative flow to Blackfish. The film also haphazardly skips in chronology, while spending far too little time examining the titular creature. While nobody can blame Cowperthwaite for not turning this into a National Geographic special, it would have been refreshing to at least see how the free-roaming creatures live. And then there’s the other problem: when creating a movie intended to destroy the reputation of a corporation, that corporation is not very prone to let you use their materials or images. Thus, as expected, there are a lot of holes in information and a ton of blurry, VHS-recorded footage.
It’s almost impossible to watch Blackfish and not get at least kind of pissed. Unless you’re someone who just really, truly hates all gentle living creatures in this world. If that’s the case, please stop reading this review and seek treatment. If the film were any longer, it may have fallen into the abyss of repetition, as chances are audiences will be ready to boycott SeaWorld after 15 minutes. Thankfully, the super specific focus is accompanied by a super tight running time, and the result is an effective destruction of a corporation that sure deserved it.
Grade = B
For those who wore out copies of their Free Willy VHS tapes from watching it too many times, Blackfish is sure to reignite the flame that made freeing Willy feel so necessary. The documentary directed by newcomer Gabriela Cowperthwaite is sure to turn heads, and hearts, toward the current state of animals kept in captivity, namely Orca whales, and the companies that hold them there, specifically SeaWorld. The film is 83 minutes of jaw-dropping film footage and stories from those who have worked the closest with one of the world’s largest creatures. Everyone from neuroscientists, to Orca specialists, to former SeaWorld trainers (it can be assumed current ones weren’t allowed to interview), each provided insight into the world of capturing, training, and detaining the animal that had a movie franchise made after it.
For those who have been to SeaWorld, the film will give feelings of guilt and shame. And for those who have ever wanted to go to the famed amusement park, the motivation to go will turn from wanting to photograph to wanting to protest. Like most documentaries, the film has a clear stance: SeaWorld treats their killer whales in a killing fashion. But what the film does so well is explain the difference between what the public is told about tragedies that have occurred at places like SeaWorld and what actually happened from those who witnessed it first-hand. For those who are squeamish, the film does not offer any protection from images of broken bones or blood in the water. Clips from home videos provide some of the most gut-wrenching imagery and creates some of the most potent juxtaposition between what the audience thinks they know and what they actually know.
The most powerful insight, however, comes from the interviewees. The former SeaWorld employees continuously express their naivety about what they did for a living. The most heartbreaking stories are those that show the humanity of Orcas. Stories about babies being taken from mothers and mothers grieving. The stories don’t anthropomorphize the creatures. The stories humanize them. Perhaps that is what is the most unsettling about the film: these magnificent creatures are intelligent and do feel. But rather than protecting them in an environment similar to the one they were meant to live in, they are being stuck in literal boxes and demanded to perform.
The title of “killer whale” holds irony for those that are in the wild. As audiences will discover, the attacks that have occurred from Orcas in captivity comes from the lack of civilized nature from people that hold them prisoner-not the trainers, but those who have true control. Blackfish, regardless of personal beliefs, is a well-made, well-documented, and well-researched film. Even if it doesn’t change audiences’ minds about the treatment of captured whales, it will certainly prompt conversation. Author Dave Madden writes about animals “We are not them, we’ve decided, and yet it seems we can’t understand ourselves without them.” Blackfish provides insight not only into an industry, but into ourselves.
Grade = A