Critic’s Pick: ‘Blackfish’


Must-See Movies Beyond the Blockbusters

This is the golden age of documentaries. Exhibit A: Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s eye-opening, edge-of-your-seat feature. "Blackfish" has it all: an oversized villain, chilling attack footage, corporate malfeasance, and girls in bikinis. Add in a righteous save-the-whales cause, and it becomes the perfect nonfiction movie cocktail.

The doc that SeaWorld would rather you ignore opens today week in Shamu’s home town, San Diego, as it widens out of New York and Los Angeles. It’s the story of the killer whale Tilikum, a thirty-something, six-ton Orca, ripped from his mother’s side, tossed into tanks smaller than Olympic Swimming pools, and bred like livestock.

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It gets worse: the massive captive animal has killed multiple humans, at least twice, possibly three times, while in captivity at one of America’s most famous, family friendly theme parks.

Sometimes the violence even occurred with an audience, like that of 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld in Orlando as recently as 2010. "Blackfish," another name for Orca, rolls the tape. The shocking footage, that’s all the more compelling because it’s not "Sharknado," derives from an Occupation and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) investigation that found SeaWorld liable for two safety violations directly related to Brancheau’s death.

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In a season of cartoon superheroes at the box office, "Blackfish" tells a real-life tale of a complex super-villain. And what makes it all the more horrifying is the degree to which we unwittingly conspired to create the monster. He was a captive animal – and many of us voluntarily became a captive audience to his recurring humiliation. If you’ve ever sat in the audience at SeaWorld’s main attraction and waited for the big splash and the jolly fin wave, with a Shamu plush toy in one hand and your kids’ sticky palm in the other, then you’ll be both appalled and intrigued at how this violence could have happened and, as the film tells it, been hushed up, and how our tourist dollars have underwritten the whole affair.

Bottom Line: A shattering documentary about a serial killer whale