Review: Blackfish

Film Title: Blackfish

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Starring: Tilikum

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 83 min

Fri, Jul 26, 2013, 13:03


The upward-curving mouth of our favourite sea mammals (surely dolphins and orca whales) allows us to believe that they’re always jolly. This apparently sunny aspect has been useful – and profitable – for marine theme parks. “But they’re smiling,” think tourists and visitors, as they clap and cheer for the confinement of gigantic creatures, who in the wild would swim hundreds of miles every day.

This dreadful, anthropomorphic misreading runs through Blackfish, a biographical portrait of Tilikum, one of SeaWorld’s biggest (in all senses) attractions. Measuring some seven metres in length and weighing in at 5,400 kg (that’s 12,000 pounds, imperial fans), Tilikum is the largest bull orca in captivity and has sired at least 11 other whales in marine parks around the world.

Tilikum is also, however, a killer whale, in breed and deed. To date, SeaWorld Orlando’s largest resident has been implicated in the deaths of three people, incidents that are explored in some fascinating depth in this new film.

Watch the trailer - Blackfish

Oscar pundits are already tipping Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s gripping documentary for awards glory next year. It’s easy to see why. Blackfish marries biography, activism and psycho thriller into a pleasing cinematic shape, starting with a single whale and the trainers who worked with him.

Unhappily for Tilikum and his victims, it becomes impossible to consider the animal or the deaths of trainers Keltie Byrne (in 1991) and Dawn Brancheau (in 2010) without questioning the entire system. Whoever thought that keeping orcas in concrete swimming pools for our amusement was a good idea? Anyone?

In common with The Cove, Blackfish suggests that animal lovers who become whale trainers soon become ex-whale trainers. As in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, the camera cuts away before we feel the full force of nature’s revenge. In common with Project Nim, we’re forced to consider whether our current relationship with animals has moved on since the days of bear baiting.

It’s a shame that this brilliant, thought-provoking documentary hasn’t been rated to accommodate wider distribution and further family viewing.