Shark Week is for amateurs. The deepest of this summer's deepwater horrors is Blackfish--a can't-keep-your-eyes-off-it film that attempts to blow the lids off holding tanks where killer whales are penned in for our enjoyment.
The documentary--one of the finest of the year--is already courting controversy: SeaWorld, valued earlier this year at $2.5 billion in an initial public offering, is clearly not happy with Blackfish and its director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite. But SeaWorld's counteroffensive was only launched recently, prior to the film's national release; Blackfish premiered at January's Sundance Film Festival.
That was then.
Since its debut, CNN picked up the film's broadcast rights, and Blackfish has found critical acceptance and success in art house theaters across the country (it opens at The Flicks in Boise Friday, Aug. 29). Of course, SeaWorld's nightmare scenario would be if Blackfish is nominated for an Academy Award as one of the year's best documentaries--and my guess is that it will--and finds a bigger audience.
Even Pixar, one of Hollywood's most formidable forces, has reportedly decided to rewrite an oceanic-themed animated feature, intended to be a sequel to Finding Nemo. The Los Angeles Times reports that after seeing Blackfish, Pixar executives "retooled" their film. In the movie business, that's not just a ripple--that's a crashing wave. And Blackfish's riptide will only become more powerful as more people see it.
And trust me, it's a must-see.
Blackfish is framed by a frantic 911 call Feb. 24, 2010, from SeaWorld Orlando:
"We need you to respond to a dead person at SeaWorld. A whale has eaten one of our trainers."
"A whale ate one of the trainers?"
What follows are 80 soul-rattling minutes, flashing back to 1983, when a male orca is captured in the North Atlantic. Archival footage follows the orca, named Tilikum by the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest, to a tiny Canadian marina, where the whale is regularly punished, deprived of food and kept in a dark steel box until he's brought out for a few minutes of performance. Less than two years later, the whale was responsible for the drowning death of a young worker. When the dockside sideshow was shut down, SeaWorld pounced on the opportunity to take the whale and use him for breeding. Tilikum spent decades in unnatural confinement at SeaWorld's Orlando Park, brought out only at the end of a show to splash crowds to the delighted squeals of families. But squeals were matched by screams in 2010, when Tilikum killed again, this time holding his victim underwater long after she died.
Blackfish's most chilling revelation is that Tilikum's breeding is tied to 54 percent of the whales in SeaWorld's global collection. And according to a long list of former SeaWorld employees who participated in the filming of Blackfish, the number of orca attacks on SeaWorld workers continued for years; and when the attacks are reported in the media, SeaWorld lays the blame on the employee in almost every instance.
According to The New York Times, SeaWorld executives avoided participating in the documentary because "they doubted the material would be used in good faith."
In response, Cowperthwaite told The Times that she stood by her film.
"For 40 years, they were the message," she said of SeaWorld. "I think it's OK to let an 80-minute movie [have its moment]."
Indeed, Blackfish is about to have quite a few moments that could result in a "sea change" of public opinion.