Blackfish - TV Review

'the director’s clear bias against SeaWorld is genuinely difficult to argue with when presented through a film as well-crafted and researched as this'

It’s clear from the very start of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish that she has a clear agenda in creating her film. Essentially an exposé of SeaWorld and its questionable practices over the decades, Cowperthwaite’s depiction of the company - and indeed marine parks in general - is comprehensively negative. It’s a fact which some have used to criticise the documentary, arguing that there are two sides to every tale. But the director’s clear bias against SeaWorld is genuinely difficult to argue with when presented through a film as well-crafted and researched as this.

Cowperthwaite effortlessly blends a range of archive material, news broadcasts, amateur footage, SeaWorld promotional film and beautifully shot scenes of the natural world to paint a comprehensive picture of the lives killer whales lead both in the wild and in captivity. It’s an approach which, in taking in such a range of different sources and styles, could end up feeling like something of a mess; but Cowperthwaite ensures her film always comes across controlled and carefully realised.

In terms of narrative, Blackfish primarily follows the story of Tilikum, a killer whale who has spent the majority of his life at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida and has also been involved in the deaths of two SeaWorld trainers and a member of the public. Cowperthwaite’s choice to focus on the most recent and apparently most widely publicized of these deaths (that of trainer Dawn Brancheau) is a smart one, skillfully ruling out any “easy” answers before plunging us into a complex investigation into Tilikum’s life since his capture in the wild as a calf. The director at times shifts her focus to other killer whales involved in various incidents throughout SeaWorld’s history, which at times can make Blackfish a little tricky to follow unless you’re able to quickly spot the difference between one killer whale and another, but never to the point of seriously confusing either the narrative or message of her the film.

Alongside the various footage, Cowperthwaite opts for a fairly straightforward talking heads style for her interviewees. Most notable by their absence are any current SeaWorld employees (the company, we are informed, repeatedly declined to be interviewed). Providing much of the film’s factual weight are an impressive array of marine biologists, animal psychologists and even some of the men tasked in the seventies with hunting down and, in their words, “kidnapping” killer whale calves from their families. Perhaps most fascinating in terms of the perspective they provide, however, are the numerous former SeaWorld killer whale trainers. All of the former trainers come across as honest and genuine, but also at regular intervals improbably naïve as to some of SeaWorld’s more questionable practices. They’re either likable dupes or likable liars; either way, they are unendingly watchable.

Both an emotional and genuine account of the lives of Tilikum and many other killer whales like him, and a gripping and conclusive takedown of a company which clearly both exploits the animals in its care and habitually misleads those paying money for tickets, there’s a reason Blackfish has become the film SeaWorld don’t want you to see. This film could end up as pivotal for SeaWorld’s entertainment ventures as Super Size Me was in forcing McDonald’s to change its ways. From the evidence on display in Cowperthwaite’s film, let’s hope that pivotal moment arrives as soon as possible.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.


  1. I thought this was a very well made documentary but I don't think it hides its activism very well. That's perfectly fine and a filmmaker has every right to do that. But it seemed to obvious particularly in the way the fudged the facts in places. I think its hook is strictly emotional and it has worked.

    Fine review!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Keith, I'm glad you enjoyed the review. Where in particular did you think the facts had been "fudged" in the film?