Magnolia Pictures

August 21, 2013

Film: Free Willy for good

'Blackfish' opens Friday at Village 8

Documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. PG-13; 1:30. Starts Friday, Aug. 23, at Village 8 Theatres. LEO Report Card: A-

One of my favorite lines in the movie “Titanic” came from Thomas Andrews, the ship’s architect, and was directed to smarmy businessman J. Bruce Ismay when he suggested the Titanic couldn’t possibly sink. “She’s made of iron, sir. I assure you, she can and she will.”

Is it human arrogance or ignorance that leads us to believe that something that weighs 46,000 tons wouldn’t sink? That same nonsensical sentiment causes us to be shocked when someone gets attacked by a bear while trying to get a closer view, or when we hear of another trainer getting mauled by Shamu at SeaWorld. You’re climbing into a tank with a 10,000-pound wild animal that was ripped from its family and imprisoned most of its life — is it really surprising that sometimes it bites back?

“Blackfish” tells the story of Tilikum, one of the largest performing killer whales from SeaWorld that is responsible for at least three deaths, including trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. The documentary starts with the incident, but then provides an in-depth look at Tilikum’s past and discovers that perhaps we are more to blame for his aggression than the animal. The film also examines the role of the multi-billion-dollar sea-park industry and shows how inhumanely these creatures are often treated.

Former SeaWorld employees talk about their questionable methods of whale training, including food deprivation, and how management failed to relay Tilikum’s propensity for aggression to the staff. There is also never-before-seen footage from some of the incidents, as well as interviews with bystanders. Whale experts and scientists weigh in on the nature of orcas and agree that aggression is not a trait they are known for.

There has never been a report of a killer whale harming a human in the wild, so why are there a handful of deaths and scores of injuries at sea parks across the world? “Blackfish” mainly points the finger at the species’ cruel treatment in captivity throughout the last four decades. Orcas are social animals that stay with their families their entire lives. They have a larger area of the brain that deals with emotions than we do, and they exhibit feelings of happiness, sadness and everything in between. When SeaWorld decided to ship a baby Shamu to another park, separating it from its mother after four years, the mother stayed lifeless in the corner of the tank for weeks, letting out a gut-wrenching moan scientists had never heard before. “There was nothing you could call that, watching it, besides grief,” said former trainer Carol Ray.

“How can anyone look at that and think that that is morally acceptable? It’s not. It is not OK,” added trainer John Hargrove.

“Blackfish” leaves you with an uneasy feeling mostly derived from guilt. Should these creatures be kept in captivity simply for our amusement? Will we look back on this and be ashamed? Did the Titanic sink?