Review: ‘Blackfish’ and the thorny captivity of a killer whale

Tilikum in a scene from "Blackfish."
(Gabriela Cowperthwaite / Magnolia Pictures)

The stirring documentary “Blackfish” vividly tracks the thorny case of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound killer whale and longtime SeaWorld Orlando attraction responsible for three deaths over the course of several decades in captivity.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who also cowrote with editor Eli Despres, interweaves compelling, humane testimony from ex- SeaWorld trainers and marine experts with rich video footage showing Tilikum and other orcas performing in whale shows, existing in dark water tanks and at times attacking trainers (Cowperthwaite takes a largely restrained approach here).

The through-line: In 1992, SeaWorld purchased Tilikum from Victoria, Canada’s shuttering Sealand Park, where the orca was one of three whales involved in the drowning death of a trainer. Though, according to the film, SeaWorld asserted that Tilikum would be used only for breeding, the whale went on to perform at its Orlando site. Did so many years in allegedly traumatic, soul-crushing captivity, against the hyper-intelligent mammal’s natural bent (orcas have no record of violence against humans in the wild), contribute to Tilikum’s 2010 fatal attack on veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau? Is this just another case of corporate greed and deception trumping employee — and animal —safety?

Since SeaWorld declined to comment here — and only last week issued a statement to film critics rebutting many of Cowperthwaite’s charges — “Blackfish,” named after the Native American term for orcas, remains decidedly one-sided. But when that “side” is such a vital, convincing proponent for the greater protection and understanding of such evolved and majestic creatures, it can’t help but win.




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

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Playing at: the Landmark, West Los Angeles and the ArcLight Hollywood.