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Blackfish (2013): Down to a Sunless Sea

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013)

An orca, on a jet-black background, in a head-on shot, adorns the movie poster.

I don’t know about you, but if I saw that coming towards me, I’d be pretty damn unnerved.
photo credit:

It will be no surprise to anyone who has seen Blackfish, the terrifying, heartbreaking documentary about Tilikum, the psychotic orca, that Sea World have been cranking out anti-Blackfish spin since the movie opened. The film, Sea World (who were offered that chance repeatedly, a title card at the end tells us, to go on camera and offer an alternate version of the story, but always declined) reports, is “inaccurate and biased. Funny how they say that now rather than having tried to set the record straight on level ground. I don’t know about you, but watching Sea World attempt to defend their actions after the documentary was released looks a lot like those authors who go and attack reviews on Amazon and end up getting lampooned around the Internet. None of which, of course, has to do with Blackfish itself, saving adding some amusing meta when you’re watching the thing.


A still of Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau in happier times.

“You may think we’re snugglin’, but I’m gonna go all praying mantis on your ass any second now.”
photo credit:

The film traces the life in captivity of Tilikum, an orca who was captured in the late eighties for Sealand, a small park in British Columbia, and wasn’t right from the start; while the movie starts off highlighting the big story that started it all (Tilikum killed Sea World senior trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010), we find out that’s not the first time he’d killed a person. And after the first death, which happened there, Sea World bought him. Under the condition, one interviewee notes, that he never be used in performances again; he was supposed to be a breeding whale and that was it. Sea World had other ideas.

Trainers and an orca looking at one another through a plexiglass wall in a still from the film.

“Who are you people, and why do you keep staring at me like that?”
photo credit: Paste Magazine


While the movie does focus on Tilikum, as it should, it does branch out to advance the hypothesis, and back it up with at least enough evidence to suggest a lot more research is necessary, that keeping orcas in captivity, at least the way Sea World does it, may be at the root of Tilikum’s problems; they touch on the family structure of the orca, though they don’t go into great detail (and one of the movie’s lasting side effects, as far as I’m concerned, should be a burning desire in all who see it to find out a lot more about the social lives of orcas, which one scientist hypothesizes are more advanced than the social lives of any other creature on the planet). They do give us enough to make us understand that Sea World’s policy of separating family groups and frequently moving the animals from park to park is probably a good deal of what’s to blame not only for Tilikum’s problems, but the problems of many captive orcas. (I obviously can’t say from Sea World’s perspective, but when I worked in retail management in the early nineties, the company I worked for—now defunct, and its parent company has been on the rocks for about a decade now—treated managers the same way Sea World treats orcas. Their rationalization was that they believed store managers should not stay in one place too long so that they did not build up histories with customers. As I said, I don’t know if that’s Sea World’s rationale, but that’s what I was thinking of during that part of the movie.) It’s chilling stuff.

Not to say this is a perfect film. It is nakedly manipulative, and the filmmakers obviously cherry-picked interviews and pieces of interviews. There are also some bits that seemed, well, gratuitous. (You already told us Tilikum was bought as a breeding animal, did you have to show us the scene of two trainers, um, “harvesting” his sperm? Really?) But it pulls no punches, it is thought-provoking, it at least attempts to present both sides of the story (and attempted to go farther in that regard, but Sea World would not cooperate), and it asks even more questions than it says it’s going to ask. All of these things are hallmarks of a well-made and worth-watching documentary. Worth checking out. *** ½ 



About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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