Somewhere between Orca (1977) and Free Willy (1993), killer whales became cuddly creatures suitable for wide-arm hugs, plush toys and gentle riding. But take a look at those teeth and the brutal truth is obvious. Blackfish, a troubling exposé of Sea World’s hazardous entertainment trade, does much to restore a realistic sense of danger, interviewing former park workers who detail their shoddy, nonscientific training, and chronicling the much-suppressed history of whale-on-human violence. A sea dog responsible for netting orcas in the wild loses it on camera, the guilt pouring out of him; elsewhere, smudgy video of public stunts gone horrifically wrong imparts a snuff-film vibe not far from a horror movie.
Since its debut at Sundance, the documentary has proved controversial (and invaluable, bolstering a reevaluation of safety records). Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite leans heavily on the ominous music and builds momentum to the 2010 fatality of a beloved chief trainer, a tactic that’s slightly shameless. But the outrage here is sincere (partly implicating our own love of spectacle), and there’s an undeniable truth when one ex-employee suggests we’re in era of barbarity, penning multi-ton beasts into tiny swimming pools, separating them from their young and insisting that they hit their performance marks. And here’s a surprise: Watching these whales in their natural offshore habitat, their dorsal fins firm (captivity makes them floppy), you feel something close to sublimity, an untrammeled beauty that can thrill your heart. Call it love if you must, but always keep a sensible distance.
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