Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Controversy swims throughout 'Blackfish'...


Most people have been there, but even if you haven’t, you know what it’s all about.  It’s been the secondary ‘Disney World’ for years, decades, deemed the more respectable or educational family vacation spot by many for quite some time.  In fact, ‘Sea World’ has been my family’s personal favorite vacation destination for almost six years now.

Honestly, I did not want to see this film because I didn’t want to be swayed away from a place that truly makes me happy.

Still, ‘Blackfish’ has been garnering so much critical praise and has received such a warm welcome from audiences who have responded to its themes and its depictions of the perceived or assumed ‘real Sea World’ and so, with all the collective yammering left and right I decided that this was a film I had to see.

‘Blackfish’ is honestly a very powerful film.  The depictions of these beloved creatures being torn from their families and being confined in oversized bathtubs is heartbreaking, and the way that their treatment is described and the way that Tilikum is discussed is enough to make anyone swear off an establishment like ‘Sea World’ in a heartbeat.  The heartfelt confessions from former ‘Sea World’ trainers, their teary eyed accounts, are very convincing (especially in the first half of the film) and the way that the evidence is built around the ‘case’ being presented really sways the audience in a particular direction.  To call it manipulative may not be entirely fair, considering that many of the points made regarding animal captivity really ring true and shouldn’t be contested, even by people who enjoy ‘Sea World’ (I mean, even before I saw the film I knew that containing these magnificent creatures for my own enjoyment was morally wrong), but the film does fail to paint a complete picture and really establishes its own agenda rather quickly.

‘Blackfish’ is VERY one-sided, and it’s not ashamed of that fact.

‘Blackfish’ tries to get to the root of the ‘Sea World’ problems by traveling back to the late 70’s, when boats were chartered and people were hired to rip infant orcas right out of the wild, separating them from their mothers and shoving them into captivity at an early age, in order to be trained from infancy to be entertainment for families.  This early footage and the testimonials by those involved (who didn’t have a direct relationship with ‘Sea World’) is very commanding and will move even the most stone-faced to empathy. 

Really, this is kidnapping.

From this early point, ‘Sea World’ and their ethics are cast in a very unfavorable light and the image doesn’t get any clearer.  Instead, they go into the attainment of a particular orca, Tilikum, who was attained in the early 80’s.  Tilikum has a violent history.  Due to abuse from his own kind (the female orcas who shared his living space were dominant and would attack him mercilessly), he grew frustrated and basically became a ticking timebomb.  Then, while he was an attraction at ‘Sealand’, he did the unthinkable.  He killed someone.  From that point forward, Tilikum’s history is unveiled and his track record of unexpected violence and the supposed deliberate white washing from ‘Sea World’ in order to keep him (for breeding purposes) is exposed in full light, or at least the light the filmmakers wanted you to see.

My issue with ‘Blackfish’ is not that I necessarily disagree with them.  In fact, I tend to agree with every stand they are taking, but the film becomes so heavily one-sided that it starts to lose some credibility with me, especially when these former trainers begin to show traits of unbridled bitterness.  I mean, if the circumstances were THAT bad, why did you stay on for so long?  Don’t say you did it because ‘no one else would take care of Tilikum’, because you obviously weren’t taking care of him (and couldn’t, from what this film attests to).  When one of the trainers goes on and on about how they would NEVER want their children to think containment of these animals was normal, I started to shake my head.  I mean, these are the same people whose eyes lit up when they were discussing WHY they wanted to job in the first place.  To make claims that the animals only made connections with the trainers for the fish they were tossing in their mouths also felt like a falsified jab, since it kind of contradicted the claims that orcas have a higher sense of emotion than humans and even betrayed the tears that the trainers themselves were spilling over the treatment of these animals.

In other words; ‘Blackfish’ tries too hard.

Still, the message being relayed is a very important one, and ‘Blackfish’ is a very powerful and well-made film.  I think that it is a good conversation starter, and that it opens the door for more discussion.  I do wish that ‘Sea World’ had opted to add to this conversation, and yet again, I don’t know if their comments would have been treated with fairness since the agenda of these filmmakers is so obvious. 

Now, the real question is; will I take my family back to ‘Sea World’?  Honestly, I don’t know.  There is no denying that watching these animals flaunt their power before your eyes is breathtaking and really a joy to experience, and the joy it brings to my children is unending.  While the series of events that bred a place like ‘Sea World’ is questionable and morally reproachable even, we are talking about events that no longer take place (the actual ripping of these animals out of the wild).  Those savage beginnings are no more, and so one has to weigh out those incidents before casting a disdainful eye on an organization that has made obvious growth since the 70’s and has even done some very charitable and wonderful work with injured animals, nursing them to health and even releasing them back into the wild.  ‘Sea World’ is not all evil and it is not all smoke and mirrors.  I wish that balance had been struck, instead of trying to sell ‘Sea World’ as a giant pack of lies.  Still, Tilikum’s history speaks for itself, and the whitewashing of his past is cause for concern.  These are truly tragic and obviously cautionary tales, and they should cause someone to really ask themselves how appropriate these parks really are.

So, I’m still mulling over my overall thoughts, but the message and the conversation are not only clear but important.

I give ‘Blackfish’ a B-.  Like I mentioned, it makes a strong point and yet it really should have been more balanced in its execution.  That being said, this could be our Oscar frontrunner in this category.  It felt very much like it was shooting for ‘The Cove’-like notices, but I felt as if ‘The Cove’ did a better job of cultivating its points.  Still, the reception here is hard to ignore, and while it has sparked controversy and does have its naysayers, the emotional impact felt from this film is undeniable.  This category is very hard to predict this early out, but I’d say that ‘Blackfish’ is probably the closest thing to a sure bet here right now.


  1. I liked this one more than you did, but I do agree with you on wishing SeaWorld would've given their two cents. I think the way SeaWorld has handled this documentary is awful. Instead of providing their insight they sent letters out to movie critics that were about to screen the film saying it misrepresents facts. That's shady, if they wanted their opinions in the film, they should've agreed to talk about it.

    This made me look at my trip to SeaWorld differently, but at the same time, I did learn a great deal about marine life at SeaWorld, and if I got the chance to go again, I might do it. I just think Orcas are too big for captivity. If SeaWorld made sea pens for these animals that have been in captivity too long to go back into the wild, I think that would benefit everyone. (Especially Tilikum, who I've come to feel really bad for.)

    1. I agree that Orcas really are too big for captivity, and from that angle I do feel that it is morally wrong...but I tend to feel that Sea World refrained from comment in the documentary for the reason I mentioned in the review. The filmmakers agenda was VERY obvious, and I'm sure that Sea World was afraid that their comments would be twisted to fit the agenda of the film. I can see both sides here, but I feel like the documentary failed at being objective, which is what you need to be if you are going to present a truly impactful film.

  2. Most of what I've read seems to be in line with your review. I'd probably side with the filmmakers' viewpoint, but I'm not sure if I'll watch this or not. I might just skip it.

    1. Just curious, did you see this yet?