With a month to go, the year in cinema has seen no shortage of memorable screen villains. Loki returned for Thor: The Dark World while Gen. Zod battled it out with our Man of Steel. Consider Khan of Star Trek Into Darkness and the Wicked Witch of the West in Oz the Great and Powerful.
And let’s not forget swarming zombies (World War Z), the lack of gravity (Gravity) or, of course, rich white people (42, Elysium, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave).
Taking the cake for the most unlikely antagonist, however, can be found in the documentary Blackfish, which shows Friday and Saturday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. It says a lot that the baddie of the CNN Films presentation is not Tilikum, the killer whale who makes good on his marine-mammal classification by eating an innocent woman, but the SeaWorld management and PR lackeys who deny and lie and spin and misplace blame.
A gripping work of nonfiction that I hate has to exist, Blackfish delves into the 2010 death of a veteran SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at the park’s Orlando, Fla., location by Tilikum, a male orca. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s point is not that Brancheau’s death was tragic, which goes without saying, but that it was utterly needless. As viewers learn, Brancheau was hardly Tilikum’s first victim; since his capture in 1983, the oft-frustrated whale has a proven track record of lunging at and yanking on his SeaWorld trainers, resulting in two earlier fatalities, not to mention many more close calls.
So why on earth would SeaWorld knowingly allow its employees to be put in harm’s way? As one of many former trainers interviewed says, “His semen is worth a lot of money,” and money talks (in falsehoods). An estimated 54 percent of SeaWorld’s in-captivity whales carries Tilikum’s potentially aggressive genes, making the creatures “ticking time bombs.” The scope of Cowperthwaite’s camera extends to chronicle similar incidents in Canada and Mexico, and a marine biologist notes that no record exists of orcas harming a single human in the wild. Those last three words are the operative ones. Spot a trend?
The evidence against SeaWorld’s practices that Cowperthwaite collects is damning and chilling, yet the show(s) must go on, because those Shamu plush dolls don’t sell themselves.
A stellar example of cinema as investigative journalism, Blackfish admirably aims to tell all sides of the story — er, stories — except that one participant in the decades’ worth of casualties and cover-ups declined to participate: SeaWorld. Amid all the eyewitness testimonies, courtroom transcripts and amateur videos, the theme park chain’s silence speaks loudest.