Blackfish [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Magnolia Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (10th December 2013).
The Film

It seems like a staple of almost any childhood involves at least one trip to a major marine park. Even if you aren’t fortunate enough to live near the coast, where they are typically located, families are not above traveling hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles just to gawk at the unique creatures of the ocean, caged up and on display for all to see. As a child of the 80's, I have many memories of seeing commercials for the Disneyland of marine animal parks, SeaWorld, which often featured their beaming mascot, Shamu, an enormous killer whale. It seemed so exciting to visit this magical park and watch as trained sea beasts lunge out of the water on command, snatching up fish and drenching the audience with huge tail whips through the tank. It can be so easy to get caught up in the fanfare and spectacle, in fact, that people tend to overlook the life that animal is living. Orcas are among the most intelligent creatures in the sea, capable of deep, emotional thought and able to produce sounds that are as much a language as anything humans can say. Unfortunately, those traits also make them attractive to marine parks that see them as easy to train animals that, like King Kong, will draw a crowd. But few seem to consider the ramifications of placing such a free-roaming, social creature into a “small” concrete tank and treating it like a circus sideshow. Even worse, the confinement these animals endure often leaves them borderline psychotic, placing the lives of those who train and swim with them in jeopardy. “Blackfish” (2013) is a powerful new documentary that attempts to shed light on this injustice, giving a voice to the whales that have been so poorly treated and marginalized since the practice of capturing them began way back in the 60's. The film also confirms that SeaWorld is more concerned with good PR and keeping visitors coming to their parks than they are about saving lives and allowing the truth to be heard. After viewing this documentary, it would be a surprise to hear anyone proclaim that what these marine parks are doing is of value to anyone but themselves.

The film introduces viewers to a handful of former orca trainers who used to be employed at SeaWorld, as they discuss the events that led to the death of a former colleague, Dawn Brancheau. She was killed by Tilikum, SeaWorld’s largest adult male orca, who has been in captivity since the age of two. They are all in agreement that what happened to Dawn could have been prevented, and that it isn’t the whale’s fault for acting out so aggressively. From there, footage is shown of early killer whale hunts that occurred in the 70's, where unscrupulous fishermen would drive pods of orcas into a cove, then pick out the young and leave the rest. These hunts were exhausting, highly unethical, and would often leave the orca parents so distraught they would refuse to leave their young even after they had been brought aboard the vessels. Many whales died during this process, a fact that was intentionally covered up by executives in charge of the practice. Once caught, these young whales were shipped to marine parks across the country, where they remain in a holding tank for nearly their entire lives.

Marine science experts and scientists all seem to agree that orcas are one animal that should not be kept in captivity, regardless of the perceived educational benefit to having them on display. For starters, the whales possess a brain with emotional areas that even humans do not have, meaning they are believed to be able to feel and express emotions on a level greater than we are capable of. These whales are extremely social creatures, and the young will stay with their mothers for life. Their groups are matriarchal, with females tending to outlive the males by almost 20 years. The sounds they make are as close to a language as anything else on the planet, though scientists are reluctant to call it such. These whales are not known to act aggressively toward humans in the wild and there is no record of a whale fatally injuring a person at sea. Typically, they are gentle, curious animals capable of comprehension and understanding more so than almost anything else on earth.

Yet, once these majestic creatures are placed in small tanks, left alone for most of their lives, the theory is they begin to develop a kind of psychosis which can lead to incidents of injury and death, both for the whale and the trainers working alongside it. Worse still, when whales from different regions of the globe are put together, they often exhibit signs of aggression not seen in the wild. “Raking” is common, a sort of hazing where the whales will use their teeth to rake across the body of a “lesser” whale, causing deep gashes and scarring to occur. This sort of behavior has never been documented in the wild, yet it is commonplace among whales kept in captivity. Another effect of their unnatural lives is the ubiquitous dorsal fin collapse, something that is seen in less than 1% of the wild population. SeaWorld insists there is nothing to indicate the whale is unhealthy because of fin collapse, and there are a number of theories as to why it happens to whales in captivity, but the fact remains that it is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.

SeaWorld has made some changes to its policy regarding whale/trainer interactions after a court ruling prohibited close proximity to whales in the water. Tilikum has been responsible for three deaths during his time in captivity, but he hasn’t been retired from performing at events or working with trainers. And despite SeaWorld’s claims that any trainers who died did so as a result of their own negligence, interviews and footage have proven that these people died as a direct result of whales exhibiting aggressive behavior. Nobody is ever going to fully understand what Tilikum - or any other whale that has attacked a person – was thinking before lashing out so violently, but the roadmap has been laid out for how a whale can get to be in such a state. Watching this film, it’s impossible to think anyone can agree these whales shouldn’t be released or at least left to live more fulfilling lives. It doesn’t come down to a question of legality; this is a moral and ethical issue, and if money wasn’t the motivating factor for every theme park executive in charge then maybe places like SeaWorld could finally be shuttered so the ocean’s animals can be left to live in their natural habitat. “Blackfish” is an eye-opening film that can hopefully have a big enough impact to see some action being taken against keeping whales in captivity.

Video

The bulk of the film’s 1.78:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image is sourced from recent digital footage. As expected, all of this looks pristine; with sharp, defined details and lines as well as strong color reproduction and good contrast. But a good portion of the documentary also relies on vintage newsreel and home video footage captured by both fans and the park itself from the 70's up though the 90's. Clarity and overall quality of this footage varies greatly from one piece to another, but overall everything looks as good as possible considering the lack of definition inherent to the original sources. Plus, the vintage aesthetic each clip possesses helps to tie the footage to a specific era. There are also a few ads from SeaWorld that look particularly rough, though that only adds to the visual language of the film.

Audio

The film sports an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track, mixed at 48kHz/24-bit. Being a documentary and all, you would be correct in assuming the bulk of the sound comes directly from the front-end assembly of any multi-channel system. It all sounds great, though, with dialogue balanced very well alongside a serene, string-heavy score that evokes the kind of somber, stoic mood the film calls for. There are a few sparse moments when the LFE surfaces for some air, but it mostly remains submerged and unresponsive throughout. Subtitles are included in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish.

Extras

The Blu-ray for “Blackfish” appears to be quite stacked, and it is, but most of this material is made up of repurposed leftovers from the main feature. It’s good for expanding upon some of the topics touched upon during the main feature, just don’t expect much new material related to the subject to appear here. The supplements include an audio commentary, featurettes, interviews, and theatrical trailers.

An audio commentary with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and producer Manny Oteyza provides extra insight into much of what we see in the film. Cowperthwaite talks about why she chose some of the vintage footage she did, as well as how it helps tie the film’s narrative together. There are some large gaps of silence where nothing is said, but overall it’s an informative track that is a great listen for anyone who wants to know more about what’s seen in the film.

“Kanduke with Former Trainer Dean Gomersall” (1080p) is an interview that runs for 2 minutes and 18 seconds. Gomersall recounts the story of when an orca, held up in a massive harness, violently died after contracting a disease via mosquito bite.

““Death by Mosquito” in Marine Parks with Former Trainer John Jett, Ph.D.” (1080p) is an interview that runs for 3 minutes and 2 seconds. Jett discusses why mosquitos are such a risk to marine park animals, like the orca, and how diseases are able to kill them so quickly.

“Orca Teeth Show the Stress of Orcas in Captivity with Jeffrey Ventre, M.D.” (1080p) is an interview that runs for 2 minutes and 51 seconds. Orca teeth are routinely broken, damaged, or missing at theme parks due to a number of factors, and fish that get lodged in the canal of the tooth can lead to bacteria and infections. It’s pretty disgusting.

“Recollections of a Former SeaWorld Trainer with John Hargrove” (1080p) is an interview that runs for 5 minutes and 11 seconds. With 14 years of experience, Hargrove resigned in 2012 after finally having enough of his job and the company’s lack of morals. He talks candidly about his time at the park, recalling a few incidents that had him shaken up.

“The Truth About Wild Whales Interview with Dr. Naomi Rose” (1080p) runs for 4 minutes and 40 seconds. Questions about orcas’ aggression in captivity are answered, along with addressing issues regarding their captivity as a practice.

“Alternatives to Captivity” (1080p) featurette runs for 2 minutes and 17 seconds. This is more questioning with Dr. Rose, this time talking about what options parks have for older whales that should be left to live in a sea port or set free.

“A Note from Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite” is really an interview, running for 8 minutes and 26 seconds. She talks about what drew her to this project, how the film started off with one direction and eventually shifted focus to something else entirely, and how she tracked down the participants.

A theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 2 minutes and 25 seconds.

The disc also includes bonus trailers (1080p) for the following Magnet releases:

- “Good Ol’ Freda” runs for 2 minutes and 31 seconds.
- “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” runs for 2 minutes and 22 seconds.
- “A Hijacking” runs for 2 minutes and 21 seconds.
- “Europa Report” runs for 2 minutes and 14 seconds.
- “AXS TV promo” runs for 30 seconds.

The disc is also equipped with Magnet’s standard bookmarks feature, as well as a BD-Live link.

Packaging

The single disc comes housed in a Blu-ray keep case.

Overall

“Blackfish” is a powerful, riveting film highlighting a glaring problem that most people probably don’t even consider. It’s easy to blithely see the entertainment value in watching a trained animal do tricks, but when you stop to consider the life that animal lives the majority of the time it isn’t seen… that’s where the focus of this film comes into play. Isolating any intelligent animal can have profound effects. In this case, a multi-ton whale capable of killing a person with ease. More consideration must be given to how we treat these complex creatures.

The Film: A- Video: B+ Audio: B+ Extras: B- Overall: B+

 


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