When Dawn Brancheau died at an Orlando, Florida SeaWorld in February 2010, Gabriela Cowperthwaite learned about the incident and the subsequent furor that came about afterwards, and was inspired to make a film surrounding the incident. What she found over the course of filming shocked the documentary filmmaker and former SeaWorld patron, and her attempts to document not just the events surrounding Brancheau's death, but the larger scale of how SeaWorld does business, are chronicled in the film Blackfish.
The whale that killed Brancheau was one named Tilikum, a six-ton, 30 year-old orca who had been living at SeaWorld for almost two decades. However, as we learn over the course of the film Brancheau's death was not the first Tilikum caused. An incident at a British Columbia park was the first, though for years was not able to be corroborated until the recollections of two eyewitnesses which Blackfish secures (previously, it was thought that two smaller female whales Tilikum was with had killed the trainer), and a homeless man who was found on top of Tilikum in 1999 was another victim, albeit in far greyer circumstances.
Where Blackfish may find its true resonance is the explanations that go beyond simply the actions of one mammal who perhaps reacted wildly to (paraphrase SeaWorld) a trainer's rash actions. For instance, through the years dozens of incidents with killer whales have resulted in injury and some have resulted in death. Blackfish manages to have film of some of those, with the most harrowing perhaps being from 2006, where Kasatka, a whale at the San Diego SeaWorld, grabbed Ken Peters by the foot and dragged him under the water repeatedly, for extended periods of time. Peters was let go and was able to swim to safety. This was not the first time such an incident occurred as Peters was able to avoid an attacking/biting Kasatka in 1999. The film also asserts that SeaWorld's influence (or lack thereof) when it comes to training the whales is not localized to SeaWorld parks, as other parks SeaWorld may support with the use of whales is given examination as well, particularly when a Spanish park lost a trainer from an aggressive whale.
Cowperthwaite manages to tell the facts surrounding Blackfish calmly and without much emotion involved, in fact the feelings surrounding whales is given almost as much time as the possible reasons for their changes in mood. She manages to interview several former trainers from SeaWorld as they discuss what drew them to working at the park, and even finds video of many of those trainers as they started working at SeaWorld. And the awe and beauty of the whales is given time onscreen as well, whether they are innocuous things like riding on the back of a whale or being thrown high into the air as part of a stunt at the park. Tapping in to some of the behavior of the mammal and how they work with humans is shown, almost in awe and reverence.
It does not go without saying that killer whales are called such for a reason. The film shows a seal on a patch of ice, safe from a group of whales who eventually devise a way to get the seal off the ice for a meal. They are predatory mammals for a reason, and it should be respected. The film also interviews some people who discuss the ways of securing whales and the barbarism involved with them, and the biggest buck gets put into the treatment the whales receive while in captivity. It appears that the message that Blackfish is telling is simple: animals in captivity for the sake of entertainment by humans, exposed to illness and general malady that they would not experience elsewhere. And if the captivity is a detriment to the animal then whither captivity. Seems reasonable, no?
There has been some murmuring about the motivations about some of the former SeaWorld trainers, mainly from the use of the word ‘former,' and claims of the one-sidedness of the feature. I cannot speak to the former, but on the latter, apparently Cowperthwaite asked on multiple occasions for involvement from or response by SeaWorld on some of the events in the film, and short of following the court proceedings by the Federal workplace group OSHA, SeaWorld declined comment. If a group who makes hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of species preservation and appreciation appears to not know half of what they are doing, what would you expect them to say, but to each their own I suppose.
Blackfish portrays the events surrounding these controversial SeaWorld incidents matter of factly, but also manages to slyly circle back to the Dawn Brancheau fatality while building suspense to it over the course of the movie and helps use what the viewer learns about whales, Tilikum and SeaWorld to great effect. As one who likes to consider myself skeptical when a film proselytizes too much, I got little of that vibe while watching the film, which is suspenseful while remaining informative, and may be one of the best films of the year.
Sony presents Blackfish with an AVC-encoded 1.78:1 widescreen, high-definition transfer that is quite good. It juggles a variety of sources, whether it is video shot from the ‘70s, old ‘80s and ‘90s film and videotape as accurately as can be, and when it comes to the contemporary video, the interview subjects look great, with faithful color reproduction and ample image detail, with nary an instance of image processing to mention. Sony always does right by their new releases and this is no exception.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track gets a bit to do, but first and foremost the interviews sound clear and balanced, requiring little in the way of compensation. There is little in the way of directional effects, but channel panning is present, and the subwoofer fires periodically (mainly when the film cuts to the courtroom scenes) to help emphasize a given moment. While it does not display a broad soundstage, one could be confident that it would take advantage of it if given the opportunity.
Cowperthwaite (along with producer Manuel Oteyza) do a commentary for the film that is a mild disappointment. She discusses her background and thoughts on the death, and her intent to give the film as balanced a message as she can. She still has awe and wonder about the animals even when working with the trainers, and recalled her thoughts on the matter of the whales as the production progressed. Mostly the time is spent with the pair watching the film and occasionally narrating things onscreen. It is not the best track and I think could be skipped. From there, Cowperthwaite also includes a video "note" (8:26) that covers some of the same ground that the commentary does, but also emphasizes her desire to get more SeaWorld involvement in the film. "Kanduke" (2:18) recalls the circumstances of the death of a whale from encephalitis (a disease that killer whales would not normally contract in the wild), and "Death By Mosquito" (3:02) goes into this in a little more detail. "Orca Teeth Show Stress With Orcas in Captivity" (2:51) is fairly self-explanatory, while "Recollections of a Former SeaWorld Trainer" (5:11) is also the same way. "The Truth About Wild Whales" (4:40) helps explain the differences and impact between captivity and the natural environment for killer whales, and "Alternatives to Captivity" (2:17) discusses same. The trailer (2:25) rounds things out.
The events Blackfish recount are at times jaw-dropping and enraging, but how the filmmaker tell the story to a largely uninitiated viewer is what makes the film so effective. Technically the disc is sharp and from a bonus perspective continues educating the viewer. The film should definitely earn some recognition as awards season gets closer in the window, and hopefully its impact will be felt for far longer than that. Absolutely required viewing.