Reviewed by Ian Forbes
Documentaries are almost two films in one. First, you have the story that is being told via the medium of film. It can be a biography, an event, an exposé, or any number of things really. That’s the primary goal of a documentary – to crystallize the story so audiences can understand or learn about something in greater detail or for posterity. Second, you have the quality of the filmmaking itself. Is the story told in a concise manner, how much objectivity was attempted, is it paced well, is it well edited, is the non-archived footage shot well, is it more than just some talking heads? To be a great documentary, one must both consider the quality/interest/importance of the subject material and compile it all in an effective and well-crafted manner.
After watching Blackfish, it’s easy to say that the subject material is compelling and the footage obtained by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite is at times quite graphic and hard to watch. However, the actual filmmaking elements are where this documentary fails to achieve its potential as a film. Time will tell if the emotion generated by this will outweigh the lack of cinematic prowess but that’s a discussion for critics and awards organization much later in the year.
Cowperthwaite’s film is about the treatment of orcas by theme parks, especially Sea World. She presents interviews with some observers and a number of former trainers, which is the norm for docs such as this. Likewise, she’s also compiled transcripts from court cases and amassed a vast array of archival footage from the parks and the news. There’s no doubt her assertion is that the animals are treated cruelly, from the moment of their capture through their life as a performer for packed stadiums. And it’s not just the method by which they are caught, or the conditions of their man-made pools, but the in-fighting amongst the killer whales themselves which is often hard to watch.
As a child growing up in San Diego, I was a frequent Sea World visitor and was fascinated by the animals on display. I even found immense pleasure in being doused during the different shows and would often only sit in the splash zone; probably much to the chagrin of my parents who were the ones who had to drive home with a kid that smelled like sea water and everything the animals had put into it. Watching this documentary makes the idea of supporting Sea World, and other parks like it, a much harder thing to do. I’ve kept myself blissfully ignorant to the realities of obtaining and housing these animals.
Throwing it all in the audiences’ face is the accomplishment of the film and I give Cowperthwaite credit for doing that. However, she missed the opportunity here (which may be fixed by any notoriety this sparks on release but it wasn’t handled on-screen as it could have been). This should have been more of an activist film, with suggestions and ideas of how people could help the animals (and the trainers). None of that is mentioned and the film is poorly balanced. By the end of the movie, it’s a bit puzzling whether the focus ended up on the animals or the trainers. An odd shot of them sitting on the bow of a ship headed out to sea makes no sense when the point of this is to stop people from forcibly removing killer whales from their families, then sticking them in small pools and taught to perform for their food and approval from trainers much like the ones now sitting on the bow of the boat.
There’s also the issue of trying to present both sides. Sea World, unsurprisingly considering the angle of the documentary, declined to be interviewed. One former trainer did provide a modicum of defense for the actions of the park but, by and large, this is 83 minutes of one side to the argument. Now, I’m not sure what the flip side is, as the only counterpoint I see is dollar signs – but still, it feels at times purely like an attack film, and at others, like a snuff film (when some truly powerful footage of orcas attacking trainers is allowed to play out and one can’t help but wonder if they’re actually going to show a real person die on-screen). Still, it would have been nice to have animal experts and biologists present at least something positive about the existence of parks like Sea World – as there are some successes that happen as the result of many people working there truly on behalf of the animals, and not just to see the stock price of some corporation go up two cents.
So from a societal standpoint, I think there’s value in seeing Blackfish. The issues at hand are well worth discussion, and action. From a film critique standpoint, it’s a bit of a mess. The pacing is slow, not enough perspective is provided (it’s almost all former trainers), and the opportunity to give audiences a direction to focus their emotion was squandered. All I came away with as a person was an inner struggle on whether I’d ever visit Sea World or a zoo again (and living in San Diego that’s saying something). As a film critic, this is middle of the road stuff and I won’t be spending much time considering this one of the better documentaries of the year – even if I didn’t see any others.
Blackfish is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images.
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