It sounds like a summer blockbuster adapted from the pages of a Peter Benchley novel: A crazed serial killer whale is stalking theme park performers, trainers, and even one hapless after-hours visitor. Cue the John Williams soundtrack, with its ostinato of ominous bass notes.
But “Blackfish” is no trumped-up horror story fueled by Hollywood brand names and special effects. In this documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, all the creatures are real, and all seem entitled to a serious chip on their shoulders.
The main character here is Tilikum (a.k.a. Tili), the SeaWorld bull orca who, in 2010, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau during a performance at Shamu Stadium in Orlando. News reports at the time cast it as a freak accident, quoting a park official who stated authoritatively that the whale grabbed Brancheau’s loose ponytail and pulled her underwater like a pool toy. That’s just one element of the alleged mythology this documentary aims to rewrite. Video footage used in the movie shows Brancheau being grabbed by her arm, anything but playfully, while a confused and horrified all-ages audience looked on.
What most of us didn’t know then is that Tilikum had played a part in at least two previous deaths: trainer Keltie Byrne, who fell into a tank that held a trio of whales at Canada’s Sealand of the Pacific, in 1991; and Daniel Dukes, the after-hours drifter whose nude, lifeless body was found draped across Tili’s back one morning in 1999 at SeaWorld, where the six-ton killer whale had come to reside (and breed) after the Sealand incident, though witnesses interviewed for the film portray it as more of an attack, with Tilikum as the ring leader.
You probably also don’t know the full scope of deaths, maimings, and near misses attributed to other captive orcas around the world. They include the moving story of Alexis Martinez, a promising young trainer at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands, who died just a couple of months before Brancheau. His loved ones tell a heartbreaking tale. But most disturbing is that it seemed bound to happen if you believe insider accounts pointing to an industry culture that regularly misleads and endangers the handlers of these powerful ocean mammals.
Cowperthwaite gets a boatload of cautionary commentary from former trainers, an Occupational Health and Safety Administration veteran, academics, scientists, and other talking heads. She even sprinkles in a bit of goofy schlock from “Orca,” the big-budget monster movie from 1977. To her credit, there are some mildly dissenting voices — not every trainer thinks marine theme parks should be abolished — but a few more would have made the film that much stronger.
It’s not hard to indict a world in which some of the most majestic creatures ever born have been hunted down and enslaved for our amusement. Cinematographers Jonathan Ingalls and Christopher Towey supply breathtaking footage of orcas in the wild, bumped up against stark images of the whales in captivity. Experts explain how high-functioning and social the whales are in nature and how confinement might drive them to uncharacteristically aggressive acts, documented by this film in graphic detail. A crusty whale hunter tears up as he recounts herding orcas off the coast of Washington, corralling the babies to be shipped off to a theme park while their parents cried out helplessly nearby.
From its opening audio — shards of a chilling 911 call reporting Brancheau’s death (“A whale ate one of the trainers?” “That’s correct.”) — “Blackfish” sets out to build a case, and it does so in the style of a psychological thriller or a TV cop show that cares as much about entertainment as it does about justice. SeaWorld, which unsurprisingly refused to cooperate with the filmmakers, has denounced the finished documentary as “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.” You can find voices for all sides of this controversy on the Internet, and you should give each a fair shake before passing judgment. But what’s on camera is both damning and expertly assembled, a filmmaking effort worthy of standing with 2009’s Oscar-winning documentary about dolphin abuse, “The Cove.” “Blackfish,” equally compelling and artfully made, will make you think twice about buying a ticket to see whales “perform.”