This week in movies you missed: Scientists call it orca. Native Americans call it blackfish. SeaWorld calls it Shamu.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Oscar-shortlisted documentary argues that we should treat the killer whale with more respect. The result: a raft of performers have canceled their SeaWorld appearances. (Today, for instance, Trace Adkins.)
What You Missed
In 2010, an experienced trainer named Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca named Tilikum during a SeaWorld show. Nearly 20 years earlier, the same whale (according to some witnesses) had drowned a trainer at his original home in a British Columbia sea park. Tilikum is also considered responsible for the death of a disturbed man who decided to "swim with the whales" at SeaWorld in 1999.
Trainer carelessness? Psychotic animal? Or proof that orcas don't belong in captivity?
Blackfish strongly takes the third position. Its stance is summed up by one interviewee's soundbite: "If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?"
The non-narrated doc's witnesses include scientists, terrified bystanders, a grizzled old guy who used to capture orcas in the wild (a practice now outlawed) and, most damningly, several former SeaWorld trainers.
We see those trainers in park footage performing with the killer whales — lithe, muscular and smiling, SeaWorld's own rock stars. Then we see them older and more sober, regretting the lies they believe they told the public about these animals.
They're also furious about what they feel are the park's efforts to blame the deaths on trainer mistakes. These came up in the OSHA investigation resulting from Brancheau's death, which led to a ban on trainers entering the water with orcas.
Why You Missed It
You may have caught Blackfish in a one-week run at Montpelier's Savoy Theater. Now it's on DVD, Netflix Instant, etc. The controversy and Oscar buzz will probably keep it in the limelight.
Should You Keep Missing It?
Much as I love animals, I tend to resist movies that anthropomorphize and sentimentalize them. The Cove (2009), which got Oscar voters all het up about dolphin eating in Japan, left me wondering why no alternative perspectives were presented.
Blackfish does, as its critics have pointed out, anthropomorphize the killer whales. I'm not in a position to check its veracity, and I don't think anyone should see it without reading some of the counterarguments, too. (Here is SeaWorld's official response to the documentary, with critique from a reporter. Here is an exotic animal enthusiast's eloquent rebuttal of its thesis. Here's a critique of the movie from the Nashville Scene.)
But I still found Blackfish more compelling and disturbing than The Cove for a few reasons:
1. Confession: I am a rubbernecker. When I hear about a horrifying accident, I want details. How can you turn off a movie that starts with a 911 call in which a park employee says, "A whale ate a trainer"?
2. No, that's not really a good argument for watching the film. But, like Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (which has a similar grisly initial appeal, pardon the pun), Blackfish goes beyond sensationalism to explore the trainers' complex relationships with their gigantic carnivorous charges.
The trainers are well spoken and personable. Still, if you choose, you could view them as unreliable witnesses who've chosen to project human characteristics on the whales. Who really understands what's going on in Tilikum's head? While that interpretation complicates the film's thesis, it doesn't make it any less interesting.
3. Lots of witnesses. Yes, they may have been cherry-picked. But there's something quite powerful in seeing former employees (and enthusiasts) of a company turn against what they passionately feel are bad policies.
A few dissenting voices are heard as well, but I would have liked to see a greater range of witnesses from the scientific community. What about the argument that reintroducing whales to the ocean is cruel and impractical?
4. An occasional light touch. I was hoping the filmmakers would play footage from the cheeseball 1977 film Orca. They did not disappoint. One of the scientists interviewed consistently brings the wry humor, as well.
Verdict: Not my pick for best documentary of the year; that would be the more open-ended, thought-provoking The Act of Killing. But well worth a look.
And Blackfish might make you think twice about plans for a SeaWorld visit. If nothing else, it puts to rest the notion that a 12,000-pound animal with sharp teeth can ever be regarded as "cuddly."
This Week in Theaters
At last, Oscar frontrunners (and Oscar bait) come to town! Inside Llewyn Davis at the Roxy and Savoy, August: Osage County at the Roxy, Spike Jonze's Her and the brutal Navy SEAL drama Lone Survivor everywhere.
At the Savoy, catch The Broken Circle Breakdown, a Belgian bluegrass drama (really) with Oscar buzz.
Oh, and The Legend of Hercules. Wouldn't want 2014 to start without some CGI.
This Week on Video
The Act of Killing, Closed Circuit, I'm So Excited, Thanks for Sharing, seasons of "Archer," "House of Lies" and NBC's amusingly terrible "The Following."