I skipped this documentary in theaters, but luckily CNN is somehow airing docs that only just recently left the multiplex. [I’m talking this film and “Pandora’s Promise” only just left screens in August and they’re now on a basic cable channel, which is unheard of and better than Netflix.]
What Works: The film is an expose of SeaWorld and specifically of the treatment of “serial killer”whale Tilikum who’s maimed or been responsible for the deaths of several people. They use archival footage, as well as several talking head interviews with ex-whale trainers and (in the best five minutes of the movie) an interview with the whaler who captured the baby whales to be farmed out at SeaWorld. That one sequence had a real feel of expose that, to me, the rest of the movie never authentically created.
I want to be clear: exactly how much you care about any of this will really depend on you as a person and where your priorities lie. I consider myself an animal lover, but I would never prioritize them over 100 political issues I feel more strongly about or donate money to a charity that helps homeless dogs find sweaters or what have you.
I also want to say that I’m a huge fan of aquariums and I’ve been to SeaWorld in Orlando and loved it, and I can’t say the happiness of the killer whales or the emotional stability of Tilikum was a real lingering question for me after my visit.
What Doesn’t Work: This film didn’t change my mind about SeaWorld, and I hope to go back one day. Isn’t that really the ultimate failure of a negative doc? If I watched an entire film about how bad Monsanto sucked and I still don’t dislike them, then wouldn’t that film be considered ineffective? “Blackfish” exists solely to try to sway people’s opinions against SeaWorld and whale captivity, and if it doesn’t do that…well…
1. I’m sure it will sway some people that are easily swayed by hearing that anything remotely bad is happening to animals. Those people are swayed more by emotions and gut instincts. “Blackfish” is a doc that doubles down too hard on the emotions and not enough on the facts. 2. Most of the “experts” are uneducated whale trainers that know a little bit about the way whales perform tricks and not a lot about anything else. It’s clear that these trainers are daredevils first and aquatic scientists…well, I would say second, but that wouldn’t be true either. 3. For a propaganda doc (the “shadowy” conspiracy about SeaWorld in the Canary Islands is laughably dramatic), there’s never a uniform attitude towards who we should hate. They spend a lot of time focusing on the dead trainer and trying to make her death into perhaps (dare I say it?) a larger tragedy than it might really be, but they keep telling us that Tilikum is completely not responsible for that. Everyone admits that whale attacks are rare and whale deaths are extremely rare but they won’t consider that Tilikum may just be more aggressive than most of the whales. Plus, if it’s not the fault of the animals (and I don’t believe that it is), then why are the trainers total victims in all this? All of the trainers come on talking about how they loved their jobs, but not one of them seemed to think it was wrong while they were doing it. If we follow the film’s logic that SeaWorld is evil and their employees nefarious, then what makes the whale trainers totally exempt from scorn?
What I Would Have Done Differently: There are so many things to be outraged about in this world. I just really can’t be expected to get an outrage-boner over the treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld. This doc’s central premise is faulty, and the presentation of the material never makes a consistent case for who the exact bad guys are, and traffics too heavily in emotions and conspiracy theories more than straight facts.