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Review: Killer Whale Doc 'Blackfish' Exposes the Deadly Side of SeaWorld

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood October 23, 2013 at 1:41PM

One of the most harrowing film sequences you are likely to see this year is in “Blackfish," Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s gripping documentary on SeaWorld’s captivity of orca whales, and the lethal consequences that have arisen from keeping this awesome species in cement pools for the enjoyment of water park visitors. (The film airs on CNN October 24.)


The whales shouldn’t be in a water-park environment to begin with, points out an OSHA employee interviewed for the film. (Following Brancheau’s death, OSHA -- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- took legal action against SeaWorld, a case that ultimately ruled trainers must have a barrier between themselves and the whales. SeaWorld is appealing the ruling.) Aside from the obvious issue of cramped space, whale offspring are often separated from their mothers and moved to different SeaWorld locations, while males and females are forced to co-exist in too close proximity, resulting in harmful and sometimes bloody whale-on-whale aggression.

The points are echoed by the slew of former SeaWorld trainers Cowperthwaite interviews. These men and women -- many of whom have all-American good looks (read: blonde and tan), reminding us that the Shamu show industry is an entertainment business like any other -- claim there was considerable effort on the part of SeaWorld to hush up and sweep away any problems related to the highly bankable orca performances. Shamu shows are taped, but those revealing any violent whale behavior were not to be used -- in any cut -- for SeaWorld promotional spots. Tilikum’s past track record, which included the death of a young woman in Victoria, was not shared with SeaWorld employees. Tour guides were given false information to relay to park visitors, such as the average lifespan of a whale, and the occurrence of a collapsed dorsal fin (seen almost exclusively in captive male orcas, such as Tilikum).

“Blackfish” is a prime example of investigative journalism in the often tricky arena of single-issue, single-stance documentaries. It undoubtedly is slickly made, and unafraid to use an emotionally tugging score to accompany its begging-to-be-sensationalized subject. But Cowperthwaite strikes a fine balance between edge-of-your-seat filmmaking -- no one, after all, wants to see a dry film about deadly killer whales -- and thoughtful examination.

What she drags up from the murky bottom are larger points about unnecessary tragedy, corporate ruthlessness, and that bizarre intersection point between entertainment and our delusions of interconnectedness with animals that, for all purposes, should remain magnificently and formidably in the wild.

"Blackfish" airs October 24 on CNN. 

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, Blackfish, Documentary, Documentaries

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.