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Sundance review: 'Blackfish' is an alarming film

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 4:58 p.m. MDT

"Blackfish" (Sarah Hoffman) "Blackfish" (Sarah Hoffman)

Audiences might think twice about going to see the Shamu shows at SeaWorld after “Blackfish.”

The new documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which premiered as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, takes a closer look at the multi-ton Orcinus orca — or killer whale — paying particular attention to the whales that perform at marine parks around the globe.

But don’t go into “Blackfish” expecting something along the lines of “Free Willy.” Cowperthwaite ditches the sentimentality usually reserved for these animals in favor of sobering facts and real-world horror that might, at times, actually feel closer to “Jaws.”

At the center of it all is Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca directly responsible for the deaths of three individuals.

Tilikum gained international attention in 2010 after killing 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, a senior orca trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, in what was initially represented as a freak accident.

Using that incident as a starting point, Cowperthwaite investigates the long history of aggressive, violent behavior displayed not only by Tilikum, but by many killer whales in captivity, and in the process, she builds a powerful argument against using orcas for entertainment.

Certain scenes in “Blackfish” are not for the faint of heart.

In the midst of all the grisly details and scenes of orca attacks, however, the director is careful to never villainize the whales.

Interviews with orca researchers highlight just how remarkable and sensitive these creatures really are, and it’s difficult not to see them as the tragic victims.

SeaWorld, on the other hand, doesn’t come off quite so well.

In one particularly gut-wrenching part of the film, Cowperthwaite answers a question that’s probably crossed a lot of people’s minds: Where did the marine parks get their orcas in the first place? Needless to say, the answer is not a happy one.

What’s more, a number of the interviewees in “Blackfish” are former SeaWorld trainers who were left disillusioned by the death of their colleague and several decades of incidents.

These interviews, in particular, give “Blackfish” a lot of weight.

Like another Sundance documentary, 2009’s “The Cove,” which took a similar approach to dolphins, “Blackfish” should be necessary watching for people interested in environmental issues.

“Blackfish” is a gripping example of documentary filmmaking at its finest, and it could forever change the way audiences see both killer whales and the multi-billion-dollar industry that showcases these impressive animals as tourist attractions.

Like other films premiering at Sundance, “Blackfish” has not yet been rated. Moviegoers should be warned, however, that it contains several instances of graphic imagery and scenes of violent killer whale attacks that could be disturbing for some viewers.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company