Film: Blackfish


Blackfish | Director Gabriella Cowperthwaite | Score: 6.6

At the height of the giant shark terror of the mid-’70s (spurred, you would rightly surmise, by one hugely successful giant shark movie you might have heard of once or twice), there was a sudden call in Hollywood for more such pictures featuring giant underwater predators. Producer Dino De Laurentiis, never one to not take financial advantage of a situation, helped cobble together a new production as quickly as possible, and, in 1977, churned out Orca (no exclamation point, but certainly implied), a killer-whale saga starring Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling. Financially and culturally, it was no Jaws, but it did have one noteworthy wrinkle compared to its wildly popular fishy forebear: Here, the giant, fearsome creature was actually the hero.

It’s true. In the film, the orca in question only begins terrorizing people after its mate and child are brutally killed by a callous fisherman (Harris, chewing up nearly as much scenery as the whale), and even then, it targets him alone for justice, finally getting a climactic confrontation with the fisherman and after dispensing a bit of vicious aquatic justice, going on his way. Not that the film was trying to be anything other than a coattail-rider for one of the most popular films of the age, but even Hollywood took up with the idea of killer whales as family-focused and non-violent.

That is, unless they’ve been kidnapped from their mothers, locked up in tiny pools with other equally miserable whales, and forced to perform idiotic tricks in front of sandbagged tourists every day and twice on Sunday at SeaWorld. Under those conditions, you might have yourself a problem.

Which is where director Gabriella Cowperthaite’s documentary on SeaWorld and one of its most famous whales, Tilikum, comes into focus. Tilikum, one of the world’s largest in-captivity whales, has spent the vast majority of his life being hauled around from one exhibit to another, and bullied by female calves in extremely tight quarters. He’s also responsible for three deaths, including two trainers whom were supposedly very deeply connected to him.

The film, which uses a lot of former SeaWorld trainers as its commentators, also includes some terrifying footage of what happens when a giant leviathan has suddenly had enough poking, prodding and cajoling. Interestingly, none of the trainers blame the whales in the slightest (Tilikum, though literally the largest example, is but one such killer whale to suddenly turn on his trainers), nor do they find the problem with the trainers themselves, who appear to be almost universally transfixed and moved by working with the underwater giants. The problem as the film lays it out, has to do with the industry of SeaWorld and the ways in which the company fights to maintain that the whales themselves are completely happy and at peace with their lot.

It is, of course, absolutely essential to SeaWorld’s bottom-line that this be so (in one telling moment, a former trainer points out that a huge part of SeaWorld’s revenue comes from the sale of plush whale toys and other merchandise). No one wants to take their kid to see an unhappy whale kill people, after all, and if the idea that the whales at SeaWorld were hounded and herded and cut-off from their regular socialization until they became acutely psychotic became public, the gloss would strip off the jewel, as it were (Disneyworld would have similar issues if Goofy ever went on a rampage).

Distressingly, it also behooves SeaWorld and their ilk to keep their whales, no matter the human and emotional cost: A male like Tilicum is worth millions in breeding alone. It finally came to the feds at OSHA to step in and force SeaWorl to comply with new safety standards via a lawsuit (one that SeaWorld is still appealing, naturally). The new rules might well help protect the trainers to work in a safer environment, but it does nothing to help the whales themselves, which is only further evidence that our system of corporate capitalism has absolutely no room for even the least bit of humanity.


Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for magazine ( His reviews can be found on and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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