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SeaWorld exposť, 'Blackfish,' makes a splash ★★★

Ethics, dangers of captivity are film's focus

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

10:22 AM EDT, July 25, 2013

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Tilikum, the orca at the center of the depressing documentary "Blackfish," has killed three humans and remains, relatively speaking, free — he's an ongoing attraction at SeaWorld Orlando, making the big splash that gets everybody wet. Anyone who has visited a SeaWorld or its equivalents knows the routine.

One of the strengths of "Blackfish" lies in its empathetic but not credulous depiction of what can happen to a whale's psyche, and its trainers' lives, in the name of theme-park capitalism. You feel for this penned-in orca, brutalized by its female fellow captives. With the species' natural and sophisticated sense of community and harmony shot to hell, a whale's life, according to the film, is not a happy one.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite asks many questions, among them: Is it ethical to separate baby orcas from their mothers in the wild? Watching and, more wrenchingly, listening to the cries of the adult orcas, communicating in vain with their hunted-down offspring, anyone viewing "Blackfish" would have to answer "no."

"Blackfish" is about one orca in particular, but it also deals with the recent history of marine mammals on display for the general landlubber public. Tilikum, we learn, was captured in the North Atlantic in 1983. In 1991, the whale attacked and killed trainer Keltie Byrne at a British Columbia attraction called Sealand of the Pacific.

There are other cases. In 2006, the San Diego SeaWorld made headlines with the near-fatal attack of another orca on a veteran trainer. Three years later at Loro Parque, in the Canary Islands, another trainer died in an encounter with an orca. What price proximity to creatures of the wild?

Documentaries as diverse as Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" (bears) and James Marsh's "Project Nim" (chimpanzees) have explored the matter. While less distinctive in its form and content, Cowperthwaite's picture is an honorable addition to this subgenre of documentaries.

Interviews with many former SeaWorld trainers, along with first-person accounts and endlessly YouTubed video of some horrific events, augment the filmmaker's thesis. Which is, simply: This is stupid. This is no way to treat an orca, or to risk the lives of the trainers.

SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the film, but after early screenings of "Blackfish" the company hired a public relations firm to issue a pre-emptive strike. The email sent around on SeaWorld's behalf took issue with the movie's image of SeaWorld as a sneaky, ruthless corporate entity, and touted "its legacy of supporting marine science and environmental awareness in general and the cause of killer whales in particular."

Regarding the 2010 death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, the most horrifying footage of which "Blackfish" has the sense to omit, SeaWorld is sticking to its story that Tilikum didn't really attack Brancheau per se, despite the grim autopsy results. Evidence, SeaWorld's flack suggested recently, "indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water."

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn't buy that version; nor did many eyewitnesses, who said Tilikum first chomped down, hard, on Brancheau's arm, then dragged her under. OSHA sued. The film may be depressing. But even with a terrible, watery musical score, it's also good.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Blackfish' -- 3 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images)

Running time: 1:23

Opens: Friday