When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist and/or work at a marine park. As you can see, I did nothing of the sort. But one thing lingers from those younger days: a whopper of a sense of awe at the sight of whales, seals, even sea lions, those goofy things — and orcas.
I took that sense of wonder to the theater to see Blackfish, where, before five minutes had passed, it blossomed into a sense of dread. Blackfish uses as a framing device the 2010 death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed while working with a killer whale named Tilikum. Before she gets to this horrible incident, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite introduces us to a handful of former SeaWorld trainers, all of whom sound, at first, like I do in that first paragraph: They loved whales. They thought you had to have master’s degrees to work with them. And then they got hired at marine parks, where it turned out swimming skills were more important than scientific knowledge.
The ex-trainers, rueful and frustrated, are the Greek chorus of Cowperthwaite’s movie, which builds its case around Brancheau’s death by going back in time and tracing Tilikum’s life. The orca’s timeline is interspersed with interviews that give context to Cowperthwaite’s collection of old news footage, animated recreations and beautiful shots of orcas in the wild. Slowly, the pieces slot together: A neuroscientist discusses the development of the orca brain. A researcher talks about how orcas live in highly socialized groups. Two women, who saw Tilikum drag a woman underwater at a different sea park, years ago, describe what they saw. What looks like a beautiful, graceful killer whale begins to transform into a harried, traumatized creature with a history of snapping.
To Cowperthwaite’s credit, she paints this picture with fistfuls of empathy both for the orcas and for the people who work (or worked) directly with them. (She could have asked her composer to lay off a little, though; the score works unnecessarily hard to amp up tension that is already present in the narrative.) Her ire is directed at management and the corporations who profit from the captivity and display of these animals. When the film touches on Brancheau’s death in the beginning, it’s a shocking, ugly moment; when Blackfish loops back around to explore what actually happened, it’s no less ugly and tragic, but it is less shocking. Wrenching and pointed, what Blackfish argues for is, essentially, acceptance — that we accept that we don’t and can’t understand the minds of wild creatures. More practically, it argues against their captivity, both for their sake and the safety of the people who work with them. Blackfish is a powerful reminder of how willfully ignorant — and how selfish — humanity can be.
BLACKFISH: Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Written by Cowperthwaite and Eli B. Despres. Cinematography, Jonathan Ingalls and Chris Towey. Editing, Cowperthwaite and Despres. Music, Jeff Beal. Magnolia Pictures, 2013. PG-13. 83 minutes. Four stars.