In 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a world renowned senior trainer at Seaworld Orlando, a theme park build around the dream of touching the wonders of the ocean, was the victim of a horrendous attack that took her life. The killer…Tilikum, a 12,000 lbs. Orca, one of the stars of the park’s world famous Orca show. And even more shockingly, this wasn’t the first time Tilikum had killed. Blackfish is the story of Tilikum and his controversial life…but this superior documentary is so much more than just that. It is shocking critique of a system that is inherently flawed, cruel and dangerous. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite creates one of the year’s most harrowing films, one so concise and damning that it will forever change your perception of Orca and the entertainment industry that has grown around them. 

What is perhaps most shocking about Blackfish is the sheer overwhelming evidence of, and history around, killer whale attacks in captivity, dating back over 40 years. Exploring the dirty secrets of the industry; from illegal whale capture in the 1960’s to whale mistreatment, and in Tilikum’s case, psychosis, in the modern day, the film clearly paints the picture of a ticking time bomb, that was inevitably going to blow. This makes the betrayals, the tragedies and the torture even more unpalatable and disturbing because of the simple fact that these clear truths were thinly cloaked by the lies of the powers that manipulated and exploited the animals, the trainers and the public in the ultimate of abuses. This is a portrait of a flawed and corrupted system, articulated in the style of a political thriller, pouring over the details and the accounts of employees, eyewitnesses and experts. It could be argued that the lack of a defense from Seaworld creates an almost one-sided argument that damages the film because of singular bias perspective. However, not only is this an invalid argument when you view the film as an expose, but the revelation that Seaworld declined to comment only strengthens the film’s message and affect. 

The former trainers interviewed throughout the film are never judged for their role in the exploitation of these animals; instead, they are revealed to be kind, sympathetic individuals who were driven by their dream to work with these spectacular beasts. Indeed, they are presented simply as regular people…just like us. Sharing in the same sense of childish wonder, these are people who are relatable, and as the film moves dramatically forward, transparent and honest in their feelings. Their ‘testimony’ is compelling because the viewer can feel the both the joy and the pain they feel in relation to these animals; revealing how they were exploited just as much as the performing Orca. Cowperthwaite captures the intensity and sincerity through pure emotion, a tactic that is supremely affective and serves to increase the horror when the fatal potential of the captive Orca is revealed in jaw dropping detail. 

While it could be argued that the form of the documentary itself lacks originality (using talking heads, stock footage), it is the power of the imagery that gives this film its shocking gut punch. Cowperthwaite captures the sheer physicality and power of these giants, contrasted against the small and fragile frames of the people around them, foregrounding the ominous attacks that follow in the film, where trainers are dragged, crushed and flung like ragdolls. The video evidence of attacks, and near misses, is visceral, terrifying and shocking to the core; to describe them here would be pointless because it is the truth in the experience of viewing them that is so chillingly effective. However, within them, you can clearly feel the palpable sense of dread and vulnerability of the trainers, and most impressively, the animal’s despair, inner frustration and internal absence in their relentless, repetitive actions. Seeing the overwhelming pain, sadness and potential for fatal aggression a life of captivity fosters is the ultimate advert to abolish the practice that could ever be dedicated to film.  

Cowperthwaite excels in combining both the brutal, blunt reality of these horrific events with a tender examination of just how emotionally driven the Orcas are, revealing them to be extremely emotional and empathic creatures, illustrating the bonds between trainer and orca as something pure and a real connection between two highly intelligent and aware entities. Indeed, this approach succeeds because the juxtaposition strengthens each opposing element; making the horror even more startling, and the emotion increasingly raw and even overwhelming at times. The evidence of mother Orcas screaming, after being separated from their young by the will of the corporate suits, in an attempt to find the children they will never see again is absolutely devastating; a reaction that is a testament to this film’s relentless drive to depict the truth, in all it’s harrowing detail. As the film lingers on the image of the Shamu cuddly toys, in a dizzying spectrum of garish colours, you are left with a definite answer to the question of whether keeping Orca in captivity is really worth it to sell this dream. 

Indeed, this juxtaposition of brutal reality and emotional energy fuels the film, creating a tone that combines the paranoiac procedural dexterity of Errol Morris, always seeking to reveal the truth and dispel the lies of powerful, with the lyrical heart of Werner Herzog, in touch with nature, beautiful and unique in it’s simplicity and complexity. 

Blackfish is a marvel of a documentary, both an expose and a modern tragedy of epic emotional depth. It cuts to the sad truths behind the glamour and thrills of the entertainment industry, where corporations sell lies built on that relentless human desire to touch nature and feel it’s wonder. It touches an innocence deep inside your heart…before ripping it out of your chest; such is the sheer emotional gravity Cowperthwaite articulates. Blackfish will leave you breathless and heartbroken from the shock, awe and horror within this tragic tale of man’s betrayal of these emotionally fragile, majestic creatures.

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments:

One Response

  1. Matthew Hammond

    If you are interested in seeing Blackfish, want to find out where to see it and discover more about the film, please check out:

    Trust me, it is worth it 🙂