One of the wonderful benefits of living close to the shore in southern California is the occasional glimpse I get of whales in their natural habitat. Grey and “killer” whales are relative fixtures, especially during their migration periods. One can also drive just a couple of hours to San Diego’s Sea World to see orcas in captivity. After viewing the new documentary Blackfish (opening today in Los Angeles and New York City), though, you’ll think twice about visiting Sea World or any other venue where these magnificent creatures are—as the film relentlessly asserts—exploited with tragic results.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite draws from interviews with numerous whale experts and trainers, who by and large testify they were uneducated or under-trained before being put in the water with their trainees, in her primary effort to understand how one aquatic star at Sea World in Florida came to be involved in the deaths of three people over the last two decades. Tilikum (Chinook for “friend”) is an 8,000-pound bull orca, the largest in captivity, who was caught in 1983 when he was about 3 years old. He and two other whales were implicated in the death of a trainer in 1991 at the first water park that housed him. After being moved to Florida, the body of a nude man was found in Tilikum’s tank in 1999. Most recently and notoriously, Tilikum killed and partly devoured trainer Dawn Brancheau before a live audience in 2010. He was subsequently removed from performances for a year but has since returned.
In Blackfish, orcas are described as “top predators” who also display undeniable intelligence, probably not the kind of animal anyone should be alone with in a tank. As a trainer states in the film, “When you look into (a whale’s) eyes, you know somebody’s home; somebody’s looking back.” What’s more, orcas are potentially mindful of their species’ history of being caught and exploited. One former whale hunter shares a fascinating recollection of how adult whales without young would intentionally lead him and his fellow hunters away from those whales with babies, who would swim in another direction. He also confesses that several young whales died during the hunt and that the hunters cut the carcasses open and filled them with rocks and anchors to sink them, thereby eliminating evidence of their illegal activity.
The documentary’s content is potent stuff that will surely upset many animal admirers. It is also frustratingly one-sided, with nary a comment included by anyone who favors or benefits from the exhibition of captured whales. Such facilities as Sea World can and do serve a valuable educational purpose that is barely acknowledged. Greater objective balance on the part of Cowperthwaite would make Blackfish a more complex and interesting, less preachy exposé.
Leviathans from the ocean deep also play a starring role in the recently released Pacific Rim, but they aren’t of this world. In Guillermo Del Toro’s brightly colored sci-fi adventure, fearsome kaiju (a Japanese term meaning “giant beast” à la Godzilla) are being sent from another dimension through a rift at the bottom of the sea in the not-too-distant future for the sole purpose of destroying humanity. Fortunately, we have developed 50-story tall, nuclear-powered robots called jaegers to destroy them during massive-scale hand to hand combat.
Charismatic Charlie Hunnam, well known to older gay viewers as the original Nathan on the British version of Queer as Folk, heads a quirky, international cast that includes Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), Charlie Day (Horrible Bosses), Torchwood’s Burn Gorman and sexy Idris Elba (Thor). Del Toro regular Ron Perlman (Hellboy) also makes an amusing appearance as a black market seller of kaiju parts. The movie’s art direction and CGI effects are impeccable, which is typical of Del Toro’s work.
My inner 10-year old thought Pacific Rim was totally cool, engaging and entertaining. My current, outer 45-year old thinks it best not to think too hard about the plot, which frequently strains credibility even for such comic book-ish fodder. In the end, one can do a lot worse for summer movie entertainment than a souped-up, over-priced tribute to 1976’s Godzilla vs. Megalon.
Pacific Rim: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.