Both an advocacy documentary and investigative chiller, "Blackfish" uses the story of a lethal sea-park orca to examine the effects of captivity on these ocean giants.
The film presents a haunting picture of the capacities of the creatures for both grandness and horror. It's also a scathing look at how an industry has profited from the whales at the expense of animal welfare and human safety.
The latest release from the documentary tap that, a la "The Cove" and "Grizzly Man," deals with humans exploiting or failing to understand the animal world, "Blackfish" centers on a species with no known history of killing humans in the wild.
As illustrated in the opening moments, however, the orca, marketed to the world as tail-splashingly friendly, is deadly in captive form: a whale has eaten a trainer, says the Feb. 24, 2010, emergency call.
What follows is an exploration by director and co-writer Gabriela Cowperthwaite ("City LAX: An Urban Lacrosse Story") of what happened to trainer Dawn Brancheau on that day, when a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum grabbed, thrashed and killed her — and what, over the decades, happened to Tilikum to make him behave this way.
Via interviews and archival footage, Cowperthwaite chronicles Tilikum's life. After being captured from his family pod as a calf and placed in Sealand of the Pacific, in 1991, during a whale show, he played a primary role in killing trainer Keltie Byrne.
Twenty years later, in SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum killed Brancheau. Earlier, he caused the death of Daniel Dukes, who wasn't an employee.
Experts and former trainers describe orcas as intelligent, social creatures that may not be able to thrive in confined environments, or with training methods that include withholding food and whale-on-whale violence — conditions of Tilikum's sea-park existence.
They also point to park-related human-safety concerns. Ex-trainers say they received inadequate information from SeaWorld employers about some of the animals' capacity for violence.
Disputing SeaWorld statements that trainer error caused Brancheau's death, interview subjects praise Brancheau's skills and say Tilikum wasn't a bad seed, but a wild animal transformed by artificial conditions into an aquatic sociopath of sorts. They also question SeaWorld's use of Tilikum, a whale with a violent history, as a breeder as well as performer.
They cite statistics disputing SeaWorld's claims that the park's orcas live to old age.
SeaWorld authorities declined to be interviewed for the film and have called it inaccurate and misleading. But aside from a few lapses into anthropomorphism, Cowperthwaite supplies a wealth of convincing evidence in making her case against orca captivity.
Starring John Hargrove, John Jett, Carol Ray, Samantha Berg
Written by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Running time 83 minutes