Movie Information

The Story: Documentary about the killer whale that killed three people. The Lowdown: Very basic activist documentary. Its message is a worthy one, but its delivery is never as compelling as it should be.
Genre: Activist Documentary
Director: Garbriela Cowperthwaite
Starring: Kim Ashdown, Ken Balcomb. Samantha Berg, Dawn Brancheau, Dave Duffus
Rated: PG-13

There’s nothing really wrong with Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish apart from the fact that it’s way too long for its own good. This will matter less to those who are keenly interested in whales, whales in captivity and the story of Tilikum — a killer whale who kills people. If you don’t fall under those categories, the film is kind of a well-intended slog — and one with some pretty obvious padding. (It’s not for nothing that such movies are labeled “special interest,” even though filmmakers have a remarkable tendency to believe that their enthusiasm is shared by everyone.) The fairly compelling story of a captive killer whale turning into a (supposedly psychotic) serial killer ought to be sure-fire. It probably would be at 30-40 minutes, but at 83 it’s a stretch.

The film’s message is reasonable enough: Whales (and presumably other sea creatures) shouldn’t be kept in captivity and made to perform stupid tricks in the name of “educational” entertainment (for the profit of large corporations). It’s also pretty quickly established. Blackfish, however, insists on establishing it several times — mostly with lots of talking heads that range from the emotional to the scientific. (Yes, we’re going to be told that there’s evidence that killer whales are smarter than people, which is perhaps true on a relative basis.) There’s also a certain fuzziness to the film with its tag line, “Never capture what you can’t control,” which vaguely suggests that this would all be OK if it could be controlled. I don’t think that’s the intended message.

The film would be more effective if it wasn’t so “documentary 101.” Its mix of archive footage and interviews is extremely basic. The film’s sole concession to style is to begin with old news footage of Tillikum’s most famous killing, his trainer Dawn Brancheau, and then back-track to reveal what led up to it. Is it workable? Sure. In drama, it’s been workable at least as far back as 1933 with The Power and the Glory. In documentaries, its most famous and effective use was The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). By now, it’s a little on the tired side. It also makes Blackfish feel like it was made for TV, trying to grab your attention before you switch channels. The padding doesn’t help. There is an extended sequence — one of those wildlife montages that depicts nature as a giant cafeteria — of whales working together to snack on a seal that has little to do with the story, and which makes the whales look … well, sadistic.

Don’t misunderstand — this is a worthy topic. I certainly agree with its basic premise that whales don’t belong as performers in theme parks, but I agreed with that before seeing the film. It’s adequately made, but nothing more. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, including disturbing and violent images.

Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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