BLACKFISH Family Movie Review4 min read


It may ruin SeaWorld for you, but this Sundance favorite is one of 2013's best films, as well as the first documentary I can ever remember wanting to watch twice in the same day. Far from an emotion-driven smear-campaign, CNN Films' Blackfish instead lays out the cold, hard facts as if building an irrefutable court case; the viewer's emotional investment follows naturally. The film takes the tragic 2010 death of Seaworld orca trainer Dawn Brancheau as a launching point to examine the inhumanity and perils of removing hyper-intelligent, inherently nomadic, and intensely social orcas from their family packs and keeping them in captivity.

With as even a hand as possible (Sea World officials refused to be interviewed), the film builds its case through interviews with four former Sea World trainers, capturing their excitement, genuine affection, and touching bonds with the killer whales, as well as their disenchantment with the upper management of the park, from the way the whales are treated to the documented cover-ups of dozens of whale attacks on trainers. Chilling, never-before-seen footage of near-death attacks, as well as baby orcas separated from their packs and crying out for rescue, have to be seen to be believed. The film makes the argument that killer whales have never attacked humans in the wild, but their conditions at water parks contribute to aggressive behavior, depression, and psychosis.

The film follows the history of Tillikum, the whale that attacked Brancheau in front of a live audience, drowning her and eating her arm. It turns out that this particular whale is responsible for no fewer then three human deaths at ocean parks, but Sea World keeps him for breeding purposes and still puts him in shows. The whale's story, as told by those who captured and trained him, is heartbreaking but also utterly riveting. The film is briskly-paced, thoughtfully-edited, and ingeniously constructed. I'd hesitate to call it entertaining, but it is gripping, moving, and deeply thought-provoking. Blackfish is not to be missed. It had a theatrical release earlier this year, but is now available on Bluray, DVD, and Instant Video. It's also playing periodically on CNN.

CONTENT OVERVIEW: Blackfish is rated PG-13. It has two or three mild-to-moderate profanities, but no f-words. There is no sexuality or nudity, apart from matter-of-fact footage of a whale being masturbated by a trainer to collect his semen for breeding. There is some chilling footage of orcas attacking trainers at water parks; none of the fatal attacks are shown (presumably out of respect for the deceased and their families), but several really close calls (near-drownings, limbs bitten into with some blood in the water) are shown. There is heartbreaking footage of young whales separated from their mothers.

MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Whales are some of the Lord's most extraordinary creations (Moses 2:21; Genesis 1:21; Abraham 4:21); as such they deserve our respect, reverence, and care. “Men must become harmless before the brute creation, and when men lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy the animal race, the lion and the lamb can dwell together and the suckling child can play with the serpent in safety” (Joseph Smith, as quoted by Gerald E. Jones, “The Gospel and Animals,” Ensign, August 1972, read the article for more terrific doctrine on the subject).

If Blackfish interests you, try these similarly-themed, albeit wildy different, titles.

THE COVE (PG-13, 2009)

This nail-biting thriller of a documentary finds a film crew using espionage techniques to reveal the illegal and inhumane capture and slaughter of dolphins in Japan, all while evading shady and violent people who want them silenced. A Sundance darling.


Shamelessly sentimental, yes, but still a favorite from the 90's, as a young boy tries to return a captured whale to its family in the wild ocean. Equal parts heartwarming family film and prison-break movie.


JAWS 3 (PG, 1983)

Jaws is a masterpiece. Jaws 2 isn't terrible, it's just a cash grab sequel and a poor imitator of the first. Jaws 4: The Revenge is painfully bad. Jaws 3, however, hits that sweet spot of “so-bad-it's-good,” as a 35-foot long Great White terrorizes Sea World Orlando while looking for its baby. Originally presented in 3D, the visual effects are hilariously dated. With with marvelously awful performances from usually-reliable actors like Dennis Quaid and Leah Thompson (Back to the Future) this is a guilty pleasure of the highest order. Let me put it this way: the shark roars underwater. It roars.

ORCA (PG, 1977)

“Dumbledore One” (Richard Harris) versus a killer whale in this clumsy, unintentionally funny hodgepodge of Jaws and Moby Dick. Blackfish references this cheesy classic to compare our sometimes fearful view of nature to the actual beauty of orcas in the wild. Orca is terribly lame and terribly inaccurate, but with the right mindset it's also terribly fun.


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