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The Dark Appeal of ‘Blackfish’

Blackfish could’ve easily been yet another monotonous “save the whales” documentary. Instead of preaching, the film relies on visceral violence in the context of the age-old battle of man versus Mother Nature.

Image by Courtney Nicholas

Everyone seems to be talking about Blackfish, the new documentary about killer whales trained to do tricks for humans at amusement parks. More specifically, it’s about orcas in captivity at Sea World that have violently turned on their handlers and spectators. The reason being, the more politically incorrect among us might posit, is that they are killer whales.

You could say this is an activist film of sorts, but the animal rights messages of the film are well taken because they are brutal and demand attention from the viewer. And is it that crazy to think that giant, highly intelligent marine mammals should not be placed in captivity? They live in familial units that are arguably tighter than human families, and they even speak in their own language and dialects. So, when individuals from different pods are mixed together and sandwiched into tight performance pools, things can rapidly become tense and hostile.


It’s all unpleasant but equally compelling stuff, but at some points I was left wondering the point of it all which has left me with a series of lingering questions: Does the documentary take aim at the wrong target, Sea World? And if we extend what seems to be the film’s thesis to the hypothetical extreme of all Sea Worlds and similar waterparks being closed, leaving no killer whales in captivity, would this solve all the whales’ problems? I’m no specialist or expert on the subject, but many of the whales’ natural habitats have been damaged or destroyed over the years, so if we save the hundred whales in captivity as the documentary seems to be pushing for, would we really be doing anything meaningful? Or is the doc’s purpose to get us on the ethics of keeping animals captivity for human amusement, especially extremely intelligent species? Maybe that's the point of the film?

And this just leads to more queries and quandaries, all of which speak to the film’s power. It’s already directly effecting Sea World’s bottom line; just yesterday country music star Trace Adkins followed suit with acts lower on the bill and canceled his appearance at the park’s forthcoming Band, Blues, and BBQ event. There’s a good reason why everyone will be watching and talking about it, and I don’t think it’s because we’re all secret whale lovers. Of course, how it tugs at our humanity is part of it—the whales are posed as the loveable underdogs, abused and imprisoned against their will—but I think the main reason the documentary is so compelling is because its entertainment value is rich because of the very whale/human killings that it purports to critique.

Blackfish could’ve easily been yet another monotonous “save the whales” documentary where they give us all the facts about the human-created plights of whales both in and out of captivity. Instead of preaching and using pretty but uninspired long-lens shots of whales frolicking peacefully in the ocean, the documentary, like so many successful action and crime movies, relies on visceral violence in the context of the age-old battle of man versus Mother Nature. This is amplified by the film’s main setting, an amusement park ostensibly designed for parents hoping to instill joyful memories in their young children. Is the severe trauma of a relative handful of impressionable kids worth the happiness of those who were spared what on the surface are lovely ballets of beast and human but under the waves and splashes are constructs of abuse and violence? When you fuck with animals, it’s inevitable that every once in a while the wild underbelly rises to the surface and someone is killed, and sometimes it’s in front of the children! In the age where there are so many choices for entertainment, it’s overwhelming (and one where, as far as I can tell, young children are more entertained by iPads than anything else), do we really need to be training animals for human amusement anymore? I am not here to answer that question, but it’s not going to do you any harm to ponder it and decide where you stand.

When one watches the National Geographic Channel, what do we want to see? If you’re honest, the answer is something like “I want to see the fucking lion chase down the antelope and tackle it and rip it apart, piece by piece, because I too am an animal. Deep within, I have these tendencies—to destroy things and savagely take what I want, when I want—but society keeps me in check.” If you go deep down, past humanitarianism and the mistreatment of animals, this is the reason the film is so compelling. Some balance and relief is provided by ruminations from the sweet and well-meaning former trainers who talk, some with great emotion, about their experiences working with killer whales at Sea World. For the most part, their testimonies make Sea World out to be a place that provides great care and love for its animals, albeit within admittedly tight quarters. Is the outcome that the filmmakers used these former trainers as dramatic personae with an agenda to make Sea World an evil empire rather than a place that employs specialists at the top of their fields who may sometimes have to turn a blind eye to outdated practices? I’ll let you answer that question.

Either way, golly gee it’s exciting to watch the ensuing meltdown as the slick, cheesy, family-oriented façade of Sea World’s advertising is pulled away through haunting testimonies, spooky music, and mind-searing found footage of the whales attacking humans. It’s like reality TV set in the Roman Coliseum, achieving the convoluted  experience of inducing pity for the animals, outrage against the institution that seems to be mishandling these majestic creatures, all the while stealthily building anticipation for the scenes where we get to see the horror of beast on human attacks. The documentary does a good job of showing some but not all of the horror, like Werner Herzog’s earlier, masterful documentary using found footage, Grizzly Man, we don’t see the moments of death, but in a way this approach is much more poignant and haunting.

In the end, Blackfish is a “save the whales” documentary reimagined as Moby Dick: you still get the excitement of the high seas, and it’s easy to hate the “bad guys” who are hurting the animals. Also, I don’t have kids, so I don’t have much desire to go to Sea World anytime soon. And even though I would never admit it, if I did buy a ticket to watch the orca show, it would be for the same reason I would ever consider watching a NASCAR race:  I will be waiting—maybe even morbidly hoping—for something to go wrong. Blackfish delivers this secret, dark wish without much guilt. You get to feel bad for the whales, and just like the Sea World audiences who pay good money to keep them in captivity, watch them put on quite the show.