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Blackfish (Blu-ray Review)

18 Nov, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $2.07 million
$26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images.

I’ve heard of, and have even been involved in, situations where employees or former hands have engaged in bull sessions to verbally draw-and-quarter the management in charge of their workplaces. But the things we hear in this almost unanimously praised documentary are akin to, say, “Office Space times 12,” with the ramifications being incomparably more serious. This is the story of the orca (named Tilikum) who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando’s SeaWorld in 2010, an episode that got a lot of play at the time because, for one thing, dramatic footage existed of the incident.

As it turns out, a remarkable amount of visual material exists all around of queasy orca history that’s been perpetrated by man against the species — none of whose members have ever been known to kill a human when left alone in an oceanic natural habitat where swimming a hundred or more miles a day is business as usual. But put the creatures in a tank, and they get fidgety or even unstable. They also, when residing too close to other orcas in such limited captivity, suffer scuffle-induced wounds that go beyond small nicks and scratches. Some of the gashes we see here suggest the need for maybe a Costco warehouse’s worth of Neosporin.

Tilikum, in fact, killed at least one other person before being shipped to SeaWorld in Orlando after the confirmed incident. Friendly and cooperative at his best — and crucially displaying the kind of showmanship to make children in the audience ooo-and-aah — he was probably a time bomb all along, albeit one created by tormentors, human and otherwise. There are dreadful tales related here by shamed participants in the capture of orcas and separating them from their mothers (in a mother-dominated society). The next step finds them utilized as fodder for kiddie amusement on family outings that might be better spent doing cannonballs at the hotel pool.

Getting back to the former SeaWorld employees, all of them (and we see plenty) feel used by their former management of a corporation that took major licks from the Occupation and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) following Brancheau’s much-publicized death. And which (understandably) refused to cooperate with Blackfish filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite. These are all accomplished people in their fields — you do not walk in off the street from having worked at a Dunkin’ Donuts to be an orca trainer — and all of them come off as feeling used, having swallowed the SeaWorld Kool-Aid about the benefits afforded to its tank inhabitants, including longer life expectancy. You have to give these interviewees credit for coming forward here because a lot of them are transparently mortified.

The allegations and grisly remembrances get fleshed out in a fairly extensive bonus section, which includes the lamentable story of an orca that was needlessly killed by a mosquito, which is something we don’t hear everyday. Included in the documentary — probably because its ex-clusion would have been conspicuous — is footage from 1977’s Dino de Laurentiis’s cheese-fest Orca, which is probably the only movie there’s ever going to be to feature both Bo Derek and Charlotte Rampling. This is a very powerful documentary, riveting all the way, and if it fails to at least the short lists of Oscar nominees for feature documentary, it’ll be due to some arcane academy rule (there are probably more of these than orcas) that disqualifies it.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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