Tuesday, March 4, 2014

“Blackfish” is this year’s most unlikely thriller

Four Stars

I don’t know how this didn’t get an Oscar nod. Excuse the pun, but that smells fishy to me. “Blackfish” is a powerful documentary about SeaWorld. Now that may not sound like much. SeaWorld? It’s a stupid amusement park. Who cares? What this documentary proves, is that SeaWorld is much more symbolic for a bigger problem. It’s symbolic for corporate greed and abuse. Using the story of the trainer Dawn Brancheau, who is killed by the whale, Tillikum, who has killed three people over his career at SeaWorld.

Tracing the history of SeaWorld, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite interviews an old fisherman who was hired by SeaWorld in its early days to kidnap killer whales from its families in the ocean. The fisherman says, “This is the worst thing I ever did.” SeaWorld, after Dawn’s death, blames her for her death. Cowperthwaite interviews former SeaWorld employees, all telling horror stories from their time working there from a whale being separated from his calf to people being almost killed by the whale and SeaWorld’s higher ups simply not caring as much they should.

SeaWorld seems like a narrow topic, but SeaWorld becomes a symbol for a lack of accountability for corporations. Skillfully using scenes of SeaWorld’s family friendly image, she spends a good amount of time talking about the mental condition of the whales. One neuroscientist says all whales in captivity are traumatized. Experts talk about how killer whales are more emotionally complex than we give them credit for.

That entire aside, though, it does beg the question of how absurd it is to build a billion dollar business around killer whales doing stupid pet tricks for a cheering audience. The government investigates SeaWorld and they lie. It’s sad to listen to these people who worked at SeaWorld, because obviously a lot of these people are sincere in their love for animals. Once again, it all comes down to money. These killer whales are worth millions of dollars.

It’s a very upsetting film, in parts, but it’s also hopeful that one-day people will stop using animals for these various purposes such as entertainment or money operations. It’s more than that, though. This film is about how certain companies would do anything for money even at the expense of a living, breathing creature. It’s unbelievable, though, that Tillikum is still at SeaWorld. The trainers in this film plea for SeaWorld to free Tillikum and let him live out the rest of his days in the wild. SeaWorld probably won’t listen. They need Tillikum to breed and it’s worth too much money.

Gabriela Cowperhwaite does an incredibly good job at making this film powerful, and I thought about it days after I saw it. It’s a powerful piece of work, and this is great documentary filmmaking. I’m not saying that documentaries have to be on depressing topics, and they too can be uplifting as well. I am not against the documentary on back up singers winning the Oscar this year, but at the very least, this great piece of documentary filmmaking should have been nominated. This was a powerful film that stayed with me. It may or may not change anything, but non-fiction filmmaking is important, and this needed to be made. It’s one of the year’s best films.