Blackfish: portrait of a killer (whale) 

Early in Blackfish, a documentary about the killer whales at parks such as Sea Land and Sea World, a grizzled, tattooed man of the sea breaks down. He's recounting the time he spent, as a younger man, capturing whales off the shore of Washington state. Only the young whales — the babies — were wanted; shipping costs were too high for the larger adults.

The man remembers pulling one young whale from the water and onto a ship. The mother and other relatives, rather than swimming back to sea, grouped around the roped-off perimeter and cried — wailed, if you will — for their abductee. The man remembers knowing in that moment that he was doing a terrible thing. He kept on working, he says, but it was the worst thing he's ever done.

Killer whales and dolphins, a marine biologist tells us, have unusually developed brains and may live more complex emotional lives than humans. They speak a language, a researcher insists, even if scientists are reluctant to label their communication as such.

All of this makes a damning case against the practice of keeping these whales in captivity for human entertainment purposes. And Blackfish focuses specifically on the case of one mammoth male specimen, Tilikum, who has killed three people in three different incidents. Positioned as something of a psychological portrait of a killer, the film interviews more than half a dozen former trainers and other experts and witnesses to show how cruel treatment, poor communication, and the reality of captivity itself conspired to allow these incidents. (Representatives of Sea World, where Tilikum still lives, declined to comment for the film.)

The film, a product of director/producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, is compelling but perhaps more for its subject than its execution. The story of Tilikum and the specific incidents he was involved in — which forms the core of the film — sometimes feels like a 20-minute television news magazine piece padded out to feature length. And the ominous use of music and found footage — including an opening, audibly grainy 911 call (Question: "A whale just ate one of your trainers?" Answer: "That is correct") — comes on perhaps a little too strongly.

Opening Friday, August 9th
Studio on the Square


Rated PG-13 · 90 min. · 2013
Official Site:
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Writer: Gabriela Cowperthwaite and Eli B. Despres
Producer: Manuel Oteyza
Cast: Kim Ashdown, Ken Balcomb, Samantha Berg, Dawn Brancheau, Dave Duffus, Daniel Patrick Dukes, Howard Garrett, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove and Carol Ray


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