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Movie review: 'Blackfish' bites down on SeaWorld

Published August 22, 2013 4:45 pm

Review • Riveting film details an orca's role in trainer's death.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you were making vacation plans to watch the orcas frolic at a SeaWorld theme park, the hard-hitting and thoughtful documentary "Blackfish" will make you think twice.

That's what SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is afraid of. The company, which operates SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio (as well as two Busch Gardens sites and other attractions), has gone on the attack with a massive PR campaign. The company sent letters to movie critics in major cities that called the film "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading and scientifically inaccurate."

Gee, maybe if SeaWorld officials had given director Gabriela Cowperthwaite an interview, as she repeatedly requested, the company could have given its side in the film instead of engaging in spin control from the outside.

Cowperthwaite's film, which debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival, isn't nearly the hit piece SeaWorld makes it out to be. It's thought-provoking, to be sure, but it lays out the facts and lets viewers make up their own minds.

Many of the interviews are with former SeaWorld trainers, who begin by describing the thrill they experienced working with orcas, or killer whales. They also talk about how their on-the-job training wasn't as thorough as SeaWorld's marketing (as evidenced by a promotional video featuring James Earl Jones) would have park visitors believe.

The bulk of "Blackfish" centers on one trainer, Dawn Brancheau, and one orca, Tilikum, who performed at SeaWorld Orlando. On Feb. 24, 2010, during a show, Tilikum pulled Brancheau under the water, and — as the 911 call of the event describes it in chilling detail — bit off her left arm and swallowed it. Brancheau died from her injuries, and SeaWorld fought an OSHA lawsuit by blaming Brancheau for her own death.

Cowperthwaite pieces together a detailed biography of Tilikum, starting in 1985 when he was captured in the North Atlantic. There are stories of Tilikum being bullied in captivity, with other orcas raking their teeth against his skin. There are two other deaths, of a trainer in British Columbia in 1991 (before SeaWorld acquired Tilikum) and a guy who sneaked into the orca's SeaWorld pool in 1999, in which Tilikum was implicated. Even so, Tilikum is a valuable property for SeaWorld, not only for his performance skills but for his breeding stock.

Besides the former trainers, Cowperthwaite interviews animal experts who talk about the orca's family structure, lifespan and brain capacity — all in ways that contradict SeaWorld's interpretation of marine biology. For example, the experts say orcas in the wild live as long as humans do, while SeaWorld's official line is that orcas only live between 25 and 35 years. SeaWorld claims orcas die even sooner in the wild; the experts argue that captivity shortens their lifespans.

"Blackfish" lines up its information like a tightly paced police procedural and lays out Tilikum's psychological profile in unflinching terms. It's a riveting tale that will make you rethink where humans and orcas fall in the natural food chain and the corporate one.

movies@sltrib.com

Twitter: @moviecricket —

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'Blackfish'

A documentary that plays like a crime thriller about killer whales, their trainers and the company that profits from them both.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas; Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons.

When • Opens Friday, August 23.

Rating • PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images.

Running time • 83 minutes.