“Blackfish,” in case you were wondering, were what “first people” called orcas. Back then, folks believed these creatures were “not to be meddled with,” according to the narrator of this hard-to-forget documentary. Orcas, of course, are what we now call killer whales, a sea mammal whose reputation has traveled 360 degrees in my lifetime. Considered deadlier than a shark — who remembers the wonderfully bad 1977 film Orca starring Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling? — orcas became holy in the culture thanks to the wonderfully bad 1993 movie Free Willy. Much of the rehabilitation of the killer whale, however, dates back to SeaWorld’s Shamu exhibits. And it is precisely this show that Blackfish wants to expose.
The focus is mainly the terrible death of Dawn Brancheau, a popular trainer who was brutally attacked — and partially eaten — by Tillikum, an orca who, it turns out, is still part of the Florida Sea World show. The documentary assiduously takes us through the process of SeaWorld’s acquisition of baby orcas in northern Washington and, later, when the cruel practice was forbidden in the United States, in Greenland. Former trainers, trappers, and even some executives of the SeaWorld organization offer testimony on life ringside of the giant tanks, where treatment of the giant, intelligent, and seemingly friendly mammals was not so much abusive as repressive. The film explains that these whales were forced into impossibly constricted lives and that their rebellion against their puny captors is not surprising. When the documentary drags out official records of attacks, you may be shocked at how hard SeaWorld worked to keep things secret.
Like most great documentaries, this is strong advocacy reporting with often gruesome footage; there are some actual attack scenes that would make the creators of The Face of Death blush. What it isn’t, however, is profoundly self-questioning like Grizzly Man.
A more profound filmmaker might have taken Blackfish’s story to a more frightening depth. Instead, we’re left wondering at a big, friendly creature that suddenly commits horribly violent acts when frustrated. Now which other smart animals are like that?