Filmmakers have long understood that animals garner more sympathy than humans. In a strange phenomenon of mass desensitization, the injury or death of a fellow Homo sapien just doesn’t have as much of an impact on moviegoers. Bucking that trend, Blackfish invests emotional collateral in both its human and animal subjects. In doing so, it becomes a devastating indictment of aquatic theme parks and their mistreatment of wildlife.
Writer/director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and co-writer Eli Despres focus on their energy on the iconic “killer whales” of SeaWorld. Avoiding the typical pitfall of animal-centric films, humans receive ample screen time throughout the movie. Interviews with survivors, friends and families of victims, along with former SeaWorld professionals, give poignant insight into the underbelly of SeaWorld. Employee testimony lends to Cowperthwaite’s central thesis weight, and tearful anecdotes of both trainer deaths and mishandling of the orcas appeals to the audience’s humanity.
The story of Blackfish is tasteful. It follows a complete and snappy story arc that neither deifies nor demonizes its subject matter. Using this tactic, Cowperthwaite never tries to manipulate the audience. For example, she withholds the inevitable archive footage of orca attacks until just the right moment for maximum effect. Cowperthwaite bides her time with colleagues of the victims and survivors, as well as with the orcas themselves. This helps give dimensionality to her subjects before we see them encounter one another as predator and prey.
It may seem like a stretch, but George Lucas could learn a thing or two from Cowperthwaite. The attention paid to both the trainers and the orcas is exactly what Lucas’s Star Wars prequel films lacked. In his landmark video critique of Star Wars: Episode I, Mike Stoklasa compares the simplistic (but iconic) fight between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV to the highly choreographed (but less effective) sequence at the end of Episode III.
He points out that simply pitting two powerful entities against one another isn’t compelling. Instead, he suggests that fleshed-out character development gives conflict meaning. This is what makes the former so memorable and the latter so banal. But while Lucas may have forgotten this idea in the 28 years between Episode IV and Episode III, Cowperthwaite retains total control of the audience throughout Blackfish. I know that my butt scooted right to the edge of my seat in the first five minutes and didn’t leave until the end credits.
Blackfish also manages to deliver an incredible amount of information to its audience. The wealth of evidence presented in the film exposes what public relations teams have covered up for decades. Cowperthwaite cleverly juxtaposes the darker side of SeaWorld and its affiliates with official propaganda from the parks.
I remember going to SeaWorld with my mother and sister a few years ago, taking in the marketing rap as if it were gospel. Knowing now not only that SeaWorld mistreats its animals, but also exactly how it is impacting both the orcas and the trainers, means I will probably never make a second trip to the theme park. Many other potential tourists will likely feel the same way.
Blackfish is one of the most compelling special interest documentaries I have ever seen. I had little investment in the subject matter prior to entering the theater, but I was instantly enraptured. Rest assured that this tale of the orca is a gripping, perfectly-paced film that prods at every emotional bone in your body. At once thrilling, melancholic and industry-shaking, Blackfish is a must-see.
Verdict: Movie Win
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on September 17, 2013.
UPDATE: There has been a lot of backlash since Blackfish was released regarding its accuracy about the treatment of orcas. As someone whose expertise is in very small things – bacteria, viruses and macromolecules – I’m not entirely comfortable commenting on zoology or macrobiological controversy. If anyone’s interested, however, there are a few interesting articles that outline compelling arguments both for and against Cowperthwaite’s documentary.
Scientific merit aside, I still hold that it’s a brilliantly made film.