Friday, September 20, 2013

The Cinema File #251: "Blackfish" Review

One of my favorite documentaries of all time was a movie that came out a few years ago called Grizzly Man. Call me callous, but I just love it when humans stupidly put themselves in the path of nature in all its violent glory and get killed for their hubris. I don’t know what it is, but every time I hear about a swimmer in shark invested waters getting eaten, or a hunter getting mauled by a bear, I get a little spring in my step. As smart as we think we are, and as much as we pride ourselves on ascending to the status of the dominant species on the planet, some of us still haven’t figured out that big things with sharp teeth shouldn’t be fucked with. You don’t swim in their ocean or hunt in their forest, and most of all, you don’t take them from their habitat and force them to do tricks for you, unless you want to get bit. That’s the moral of Blackfish, the new documentary about SeaWorld’s systemic mistreatment of its Killer Whales, and it is as heartbreaking as it is cathartically awesome.

Not being an avid animal rights activist, I was largely unaware of much of the back story of this film before watching it, apart from a vague awareness of the most recent trainer death that bookends the narrative. I say most recent, because while Blackfish was billed at least to me simply as the tragic story of SeaWorld employee Dawn Brancheau, she is only one of many deaths associated with the business of show whales, and only the latest attributed to the famous orca Tilikum. The term famous is of course relative to what I hope is the small amount of people whose lives are sad enough that they care about famous whales, but by the end of Blackfish you'll know more than you ever wanted to know about them, both well known and wild. It is a testament to the acumen of the filmmakers that what I would have guessed would be a rather boring subject coupled with a trite "save the whales" message is in fact presented with the gravity and tenacity that I didn't even know it deserved.

When animals attack, of course the animal never receives blame because, well, they're just dumb animals, right? The only exception I can think of is Pitbulls, which always seems weird to me, since they actually have shitty owners to blame for their pets' poor training. The thing is, Blackfish goes out of its way to establish that the titular sea creature is anything but dumb. According to the movie, Killer Whales are just as smart, if not smarter than humans, most likely possessing a much deeper emotional capacity. This obviously makes them more sympathetic when you see how they are treated, but more to the point, it serves to hammer home the fact that when they attack people, they aren't just mindless beasts acting on instinct, but rather prisoners, playing along with their torturers, waiting for the few opportunities they have to enact some righteous bitey justice. Goddamn I wanna go watch Orca again.

The one part of the movie I don't buy is that the trainers themselves are supposedly just naive innocents. I get that its very easy to forge an attachment to an animal whether or not its reciprocated, but I'm sorry, there is just too much here to let me believe that any of these sobbing ex-SeaWorld flunkies weren't just as culpable as the executives who receive the majority of the film's ire. They cry over the mistreatment of Tilikum and his many descendants, but at the end of the day, they are the proverbial Nazi soldiers trying to excuse their actions on the grounds that they were just following orders. Granted, they aren't nearly as bad as the Hitlers of SeaWorld's corporate office, who by the end you'll want to literally feed directly to the Killer Whales, but its only a matter of degrees, and when the trainers become the solemn guides on the emotional roller coaster, I can't help but feel a little played.

According to the experts interviewed in Blackfish, so-called Killer Whales aren't even Killer Whales, at least in the human sense, except in captivity. In the wild, they're just whales, with no documented case of a human ever being attacked maliciously when they weren't trying to capture the whale's young or teach it tricks. That this and so many similar truths about the terrible effects of captivity on these creatures can be covered up largely by one corporate entity just to perpetuate a rather lackluster and niche form of entertainment is surprising until you realize just how little you probably think about this subject unless you have a reason to. Typically, the only reason most people have to think about whales is when they're at SeaWorld, so they take the trainer's word for it that everything's okay. Maybe Blackfish is just powerful enough to change that. I for one still don't care all that much, but I enjoyed the parts where the whales ate people.

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