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Blackfish

A mesmerizing psychological thriller with a bruised and battered killer whale at its center, “Blackfish” goes even further than 2008′s Oscar-winning “The Cove” to launch a direct attack on Sea World and the practice of keeping marine mammals in captivity. Righteous, captivating and entirely successful, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film draws on startling video footage and testimonies from former orca trainers, building an authoritative argument on behalf of this majestic species.

The protagonist of “Blackfish” is Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca that has caused the deaths of three people in his 20-odd years as a theme-park attraction. The most recent victim was Dawn Brancheau, an experienced Sea World trainer whose February 2010 death is presented as a human tragedy that could have been prevented only by not subjecting the whale to the cruelty of confinement in the first place.

Cowperthwaite interviews numerous ex-trainers who speak with deep affection about the whales they’ve worked with, yet also visible guilt about having helped exploit them for human entertainment. Whale researcher-activist Howard Garrett, not only helps debunk the Sea World-endorsed notion that killer whales live longer in captivity, but also advances his expert view of orcas as naturally friendly, highly emotional creatures that need the freedom of the open seas.

The film builds a compelling psychological profile of Tilikum, who, after being captured in 1983, was held at a now-defunct Canadian theme park called Sealand of the Pacific. There, he was subjected to uniquely abusive training techniques and frequently attacked by two older female whales in his tank. Tilikum was transferred to Sea World Orlando in 1992, and the film suggests not only that his traumas and anxieties followed him there, but also that the park failed to conduct a proper inquiry into the violent history of its prize acquisition. Unsurprisingly, no Sea World representatives were willing to be interviewed by Cowperthwaite, and the impression the film leaves is of a deep-pocketed institution that, for all its claims of humane and professional treatment, tolerates practices that are fundamentally at odds with the animals’ well-being and refuses to accept any portion of responsibility.

The moral against captivity hinges not, as it does in “The Cove,” on an exalted view of a particular species, but rather on the disquieting consequences of messing with Mother Nature.

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Blackfish

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