“A whale has eaten one of the trainers” is a pretty catchy dispatch recording for opening a marine amusement park exposé, and Blackfish proceeds to gut the popular image of SeaWorld and similar exhibitors. Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary probes the showcasing of the “killer whale,” or orca, with an aggressive but generally non-exploitative incredulity at the parks' apparently limitless avarice in the face of preventable death and injury. Its most gripping character is Tilikum, an orca who indeed turns out to be a killer of three park workers over a couple of decades, but who inspires his owners' protection because “his sperm's worth a lot of money,” as one of his former minders puts it. A chorus of once fresh-faced, now regretful and middle-aged, sea-circus workers testify to their naïveté in parroting the company propaganda concerning the whales, such as blatant lies about their increased longevity in captivity. Gradual disillusionment with running the orcas through their repertoire of “behaviors” led to the trainers' certainty that the pail of fish given as post-trick meals was the chief source of bonding from the creatures' perspective.
The film may rely on a tried-and-true, smooth mix of interviewees, animation, and archival video clips, but it's an effective piece of feature-length reportage because of the Frankensteinian rebellion of creature against keeper, and in the slow, if predictable, “revelation” that corporate entertainers like SeaWorld, dependent on these 8,000-pound mammals to keep the revenue churning, apply the amoral sense of the Jaws resort mayor to their bottom line, suppressing and denying a list of 70-plus employee casualties since the 1970s. Blackfish's principal orca expert, Dave Duffus, holds forth on the mammals' “spiritual power,” their non-lethality in the natural habitat, and how their brains' architecture enables social unity that far outstrips that of homo sapiens. This biologically determined nobility is seen twisted by SeaWorld's spin machine into shrugs over “natural” killers after orca-perpetrated fatalities, blaming a homeless drifter who easily breaches their facility for his grisly death or scapegoating their most professional trainer's flopping ponytail for a rehearsed act that gave way to a calamitous frenzy.
Viscerally disturbing despite its cable-friendly editing style, Blackfish's imagery includes the raked, occasionally bleeding flesh that results from heterogeneous breeds of orcas being put into the same relatively small tank, and wince-inducing descriptions of trainers left scalped, armless, or with broken bones and wounded feet in luckier circumstances. Its most astonishing heart-in-mouth sequence shows a veteran male trainer who kept his cool after being dragged beneath the surface of the performance pool multiple times until he could swim to safety in front of a paying audience, like an unwitting, reluctant gladiator. This is a sort of showbiz horror film, with Shamu Stadium's unbridled, bloody capitalism taking the place of a grindhouse thriller's Native American burial ground.