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Arts and Entertainment

'Blackfish' Explores What Makes SeaWorld's Shamu Murderous

Tilikum the murderous orca in a scene from Blackfish (Photo by Suzanne Allee courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.)
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By Carman Tse / Special to LAist

The demons that haunt the protagonist of Blackfish are the stuff of pseudo-Freudian boilerplate horror: a male separated from his mother at an early age is held captive for his entire life and tormented by the females he cohabitates with in his cramped existence. Unsurprisingly, he develops a murderous streak but remains unpunished for his deeds even to this day. Oh, and have I mentioned that this is all a true story?

But unless you are an orca trainer at SeaWorld of Orlando, you can rest easy. Tilikum, affectionately known as "Tilly," is a six-ton male killer whale and the subject of a new documentary from the nascent CNN Films. Through expert interviews, archival footage, and the cute computer graphics that seem par for the course in documentaries these days, Blackfish builds a strong case that orcas are animals far too intelligent to be kept in captivity for circus-like showcases without dire consequences. Naturally, representatives from SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the film. (However, the company has disputed some of the film's assertions.)

Blackfish uses the well-publicized death of Dawn Brancheau, one of Tilikum's many trainers through his 20 years in captivity, as a framing device to explore the thesis that keeping orcas in captivity is unhealthy for the animals and therefore immoral, and that such treatment may result in unpredictable and dangerous results for their human handlers. Tilikum alone has been involved in the deaths of three humans; although he can only be tied directly to Brancheau's killing. The film emphasizes that there have been no recorded human deaths at the hands of wild orcas.

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Unapologetically a documentary with an activist message, Blackfish rarely transcends being a pulpit from which the filmmakers and former SeaWorld trainers speak out against the inhumanity of these spectacles. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Blackfish is the juxtaposition of the cuddly image of orcas with the tragedies that are the raison d'être of the movie and the reality of the species as cunning, intelligent, well, killers. Cheery SeaWorld commercials and videos are shown side by side along with amateur footage of attacks where the Shamu shows go horribly off script.

Blackfish seems bound to be at least a moderate success for audiences, as it combines the two elements that are usually singularly at the core of every successful documentary: tragedy and cute animals. Outside of the footage of the events leading up to Brancheau's death and the subsequent 9-1-1 calls, the most stunning portion of the film comes from a brief clip shown of orcas hunting in the wild. Three whales are seen working as a highly synchronized trio, churning waves to knock a lone seal off an ice floe. Inevitably they succeed, and as soon the seal is seen going under, a voice can be heard off-camera saying "It's all over," resigned to the fate of the seal and in deference to the awesome power of these mighty creatures.

Blackfish opens at the Landmark, Arclight and other select theaters in New York on July 19 before expanding to other cities. It will air on CNN this fall.