As a Florida born brat theme parks like SeaWorld were great for escapist fun. Nowadays, having grown older and lived outside of Florida for most of my life, I have become more aware and weary of the practices of SeaWorld and Blackfish only reinforces those feelings. Ever since its premiere on CNN, Blackfish became less a documentary than it was a news event. When people saw it, they wept. When Sea World rebuke, people hissed. When it was not nominated for an Oscar, people hissed even louder. Blackfish came out a time when I was on hiatus and even then films like 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and The Act of Killing caught more of my interest, putting Blackfish at the bottom of my list. Having now seen the film must say it is an interesting subject that is streamlined to a fault.
For those you have not heard of Blackfish, the film is about the decades spanning history of abuse of and negligence by SeaWorld, as told from the perspective of former whale trainers with the tragic story of the killer whale Tilikum as a starting point. If there is one thing the film does well is that explains the issues of animal abuse and corruption in a very clear and precise manner. Pretty much everything that could be legally discussed is shown in this film with brutal honesty including the illegal capturing of whales to the injury and deaths of whales and trainers alike. That being said at 86 minutes the film details seem to be heavily compressed. There is much content that the filmmakers clearly loved they became more worried giving each moment equal than making a cohesive film.
The stories themselves are fascinating but presentation itself is not daring enough to do them justice. The problem I have is that the whole thing feels like any other CNN news documentary, not matter how emotional it is it always looks bland and dull. The film discusses a lot about Sea World but it makes little attempt to provide a face of the company beyond the generic “here’s the culprit!” freeze frames of their lawyers and pro witnesses. The film spend so much time on the trainers that it is easy to forget about Tilikum until they mention his semen, which leads to one of the most comically jarring smash cuts in recent memory. Then are the dull slideshows, the simplistic animations and news footage montages, all of which are effective to a point but are boilerplate at best.
Ultimately, I am ambivalent about Blackfish; the film is a great conversation starter but is structured so dully that it is often not engaging. The film discusses about shocking and disquieting but that tone never translates in the head. For all I know, Sea World and other affiliates really did make it difficult on the filmmakers but it feels lacks the sense of daring that is found in any great documentary. Like any other CNN special, it is clear the filmmakers they were more interested in just finishing the film by a deadline than to create something truly powerful. If the subject interests you at all then it will not waste your time but anyone interested in a documentary that actually transcends the cable TV medium should look elsewhere.
(Blackfish is available on Netflix)