'Blackfish' asks tough questions

"Blackfish" accomplishes exactly what all fine documentaries should: it asks the audience to consider a shift in their perspective. And it accomplishes this with grim and riveting footage that is unsettling at best.

What this film questions is the impact of keeping orcas, also known, unfortunately, as killer whales (no orca in the wild has ever hurt a human), in large concrete pools where they are used solely for the purposes of entertainment.

These mammals work with trainers, and through an elaborate process of reinforcement, they are schooled to perform countless behaviors, the most dramatic being the "rocket hop" where a trainer is shot out of the water standing on the nose of the orca and sent soaring high into the air in a perfect dive.

These animals weigh between 8,000 and 12,000 pounds and are amazing to behold. The crowds are captivated, in awe of their size and power. Their beauty cannot be overemphasized.

But here is the caveat, driven home by the film through original footage and interviews with past trainers and experts: Orcas are highly intelligent animals, they are social, cherish their young and live in pods wherein they interact and care for one another.

The young orca pups are captured at sea, separated from their mother and family, and sold to marine parks where they are incarcerated for the rest of their lives, an experience that some marine experts say can have unpredictable outcomes in terms of their behavior. The word "psychosis" is proffered.

"Blackfish" focuses on Orlando's Sea World, the location of the drowning death of one of their most veteran trainers, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010. According to the film, one of the largest orcas, Tilikum, captured in 1982, grabbed Brancheau and held her beneath the water. The autopsy report indicated she had not just drowned (the official story put out by Sea World was that Tilikum held her by her long pony tail), but that her body was severely damaged, as if she had been in a car crash.

What was unknown to the trainers, including Brancheau, was that Tilikum had been responsible for the deaths of two other trainers before arriving at Sea World.

And so "Blackfish" questions the fundamental morality of keeping these enormous animals confined at night in enclosed containers, absent light and stimulus and interaction. And when they fail to perform as instructed, food is withheld.

And though the trainers indicate to the stadium audiences that they have close relationships with the whales, what is not revealed is that what they are involved in is theater. Orcas are wild animals, some have suffered for years, and therefore can become increasingly volatile.

Shamu is not a friendly giant, delighted to entertain, no matter the marketing. But then no wild animal is, no matter how they're exhibited in a marine park or zoo. They are inmates, their confinement a form of cruel and unusual punishment, all for the purpose of entertainment and profit. The consequences to animal or trainer can be grave.


In 2000, a small sci-fi film, "Pitch Black," was released absent a big studio push. Unexpectedly, the film found a fan base and drew kudos for its lead, Vin Diesel, as the quintessential anti-hero, Riddick. Ah, Riddick/Diesel, the perfect rebel: laconic, lethal and wanted by bounty hunters throughout the galaxy for a series of, well, very bad deeds

As is explained in "Pitch Black," Riddick's eyes, in prison, are turned into night-vision lenses that glow white-hot, allowing him to see in the dark. Which was the point of the first film.

Of course, the studio, riding the wave of gross box office receipts, saw franchise, and quickly released "Chronicles of Riddick." Another hit.

And now "Riddick." The plot, of course, is paper-thin: Riddick is exiled (wounded, desperate) to a desert-like planet, inhabited by some very strange and dangerous creatures. There Riddick finds an abandoned outpost and manages to call for help, identifying himself, knowing that bounty hunters will soon arrive. His plan: kill the hunters and steal their ship and so escape said awful planet, heading home to Furya.

To his surprise two crews arrive, different ships, twice the job for Riddick, which he manages nicely, involving only one beheading in one of the most improbable scenes imaginable.

Is the film over-the-top, gratuitously violent, filled with Neolithic no-necks who fall victim to Riddick's hutzpah? You betcha. Will his fanboys absolutely love this third installment? Ditto. Is the final scene a set piece signaling "Riddick 4"? No doubt.

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