Blackfish otherwise only gestures towards the great financial interest SeaWorld has in maintaining the public’s interest in the Shamu model of the cozy killer whale, which is a shame, because the anchor of the film’s condemnation is poorly presented. SeaWorld has covered up the dozens of violent incidents involving killer whales by issuing vague, blanket accusations of “trainer error,” which Blackfish’s major subjects naturally and justifiably take issue with. Some of the trainers’ comments complicate matters, though: the argument is meant to be perceived as a cover-up, but one trainer suggests a former colleague did make mistakes before a near-death experience, captured in a long video that Cowperthwaite presents in all its agonizing duration. (The film’s strongest asset is the director’s use of such footage; the viewer’s dread steadily accumulates, even when watching ultimately benign clips.)
Instead of embracing the complexity of the situation, which may have fostered further suspense about the seeming randomness and constant threat of these outbursts, Cowperthwaite largely elides it. One can see why: whether or not a trainer could have performed better, SeaWorld has put its employees at risk due to its poor treatment of killer whales. Nonetheless, the unfulfilled potential of this fraught episode is emblematic of Blackfish itself, which persistently suffers from SeaWorld’s refusal to participate in the film. Without a villain to engage with, Cowperthwaite’s film occasionally becomes trapped in its own pool of righteousness, unsure of how best to make its admirable point.
BLACKFISH | directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite | distributed by Magnolia Pictures | 80 minutes | screens at SPACE Gallery Aug 9 @ 7:30 pm | $8 | space538.org