It would be dishonest for me to review Blackfish, a recent documentary about an orca at Sea World, without first disclosing my history with the park.
I have always been fascinated with non-human animals, and in fact spent much of my youth dreaming of becoming a marine biologist. I would occasionally make the short drive with my family to Sea World San Diego, where I fell hopelessly in love with Shamu and the dolphins.
But, even from an early age, this love wracked me with guilt. In sixth grade, as part of an assignment on business letters, I composed an argument to then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger demanding that all captive animals (including Shamu) be reintroduced into the wild where possible, or at the very least guaranteed a more open area to roam in. Yet I still visited zoos. In eleventh grade I wrote a song from the perspective of a captive orca who slowly loses its mind at a Sea World-esque amusement park. By this point, I was firmer in my convictions: I haven’t been to Sea World since.
So I was predisposed to agree with the message of Blackfish: that intelligent, social creatures should not be kept in captivity. But in the interest of objectivity, I made a conscious effort to be a skeptical viewer: what I wanted to see was whether the film could make a compelling and fair case.
The answer, to be brief, is yes, although it sometimes sacrifices “fair” for the sake of “compelling.” The film follows Tilikum, an orca captured near Iceland in 1983, moved from British Columbia to Orlando, and involved in the deaths of three humans (but also—through artificial insemination—the lives of most of Sea World’s next generation of performers). Blackfish argues that keeping these animals in amusement parks is both dangerous for humans and cruel to the animal.
This “both” is at the root of this argument’s major flaws. The film documents a lawsuit filed by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) that claims that swimming with orcas is inherently unsafe and that the trainers need to be protected. At the same time, it also follows Tilikum and other orcas, presenting stories from their former trainers along the way, to show that these lovable animals are capable of having complex communication and familial bonds. However this advanced social structure is stunted in captivity; orca life in the wild is significantly different, and significantly superior, to life in a theme park.
There is certainly a way to balance these two storylines, to inspire both fear and love. An obvious example is Tim Zimmerman’s “The Killer in the Pool,” the Outside Magazine article that inspired the film. Zimmerman, who co-wrote Blackfish’s script, writes not only with concern but also with professionalism, allowing the story to speak for itself. Blackfish, unfortunately, too often goes for the melodramatic (and worse, often has trouble keeping a coherent timeline—an annoyance, but the only mechanical hiccup in an otherwise exceedingly well-made film). In one moment orcas are murderous psychopaths and in another they are gentle giants. The viewer is left with a conflicting portrait.
This conflict is only addressed towards the end, when we are told that Sea World is now keeping trainers out of the water due to OSHA’s lawsuit. The trainers provide a touching “gentle giant” counterpoint to this high point in the “murderous psychopaths” storyline. They argue that human interaction is probably the most exciting part of their captives’ day, and that—while the decision is safer for humans—it only makes life worse for the orca. The attacks, the film makes clear, are but a symptom of the animals’ exploitation, and the OSHA suit’s success is no more than a bandage. Yet the film’s portrayal of this bandage, in which greedy corporate Sea World risks its own employees by covering up Tilikum’s past transgressions, is perhaps its strongest feature. I found this evidence stronger than the moving, anecdotal tales of trainers looking into an orca’s eye and knowing it deserves to be free.
Don’t get me wrong—the trainer’s anecdotes make for an emotionally engaging documentary and are a valuable component. However, the filmmakers interviewed at least half a dozen trainers at length and only one biologist, inviting accusations of unscientific, sentimental anthropomorphizing of the animals. As it happens, scientific consensus does confirm that orcas are scary smart and have no business being stuck in a tiny pool, but the film is content to go for your heart first and your brain a distant second.
Maybe this only bothered me because, as mentioned above, I was actively trying to be skeptical. After all, the film scored a 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and public response has been almost universally positive—am I just being nitpicky? But I think I detect a real hint of doubt behind the scenes: while the filmmakers feel an ethical responsibility towards the orcas (and Zimmerman, since writing “The Killer in the Pool,” has gotten involved in other animal rights issues), they are unsure whether to ask the same of the audience. It is easier to point out the (real and relevant) danger to human trainers than to try to sell a society of meat-eating zoo-goers a lecture on “animal liberation”—even for an animal as awe-inspiring as the orca.
So they stick with pathos (damn good pathos, to be fair) and hope you sympathize. It’s enough to get some people excited and get publicity, both of which are a positive start. But I question whether it will be enough to fully convert the skeptic, or sustain a movement.
Of course, my tactical uncertainty doesn’t make me Blackfish’s only critic. Sea World, unsurprisingly, was far from thrilled. Although Zimmerman’s article is nuanced in its (ultimately critical) portrayal of Sea World, the film largely opts for an all-out assault on this perceived evil empire. The park released a series of complaints, elucidating what the documentary got “wrong.” The most ringing endorsement of Blackfish I can give is that, while reading Sea World’s statement, I was able to repudiate each argument. Amidst the unabashed bias and dramatic music, the film had also given me the factual tools necessary to see through Sea World’s defense.
Despite all my above hang-ups, I really did like watching it, and was made to feel a wide range of real emotions. If you accept that it is a work of entertainment trying to keep your attention, you’re in for an exciting and moving experience, even if it risks alienating those looking for a more in-depth treatment of the issues. Whatever else one might say about it, in following Tilikum through kidnap, abuse, and descent into madness, Blackfish educates us on a story that is not as black and white as the creature that inspired it, but whose solution—phasing out orca captivity—just might be.
Dayton Martindale is a senior in the Astrophysical Sciences department, getting a certificate in Teacher Preparation.