There comes a time in every man’s life when he must let go of the comforting naivete of his childhood and confront reality on its own terms. All that his elementary-school-aged mind held dear will be torn asunder, his illusions laid bare and stripped of all pretense, with no logical conclusion other than to proclaim that his old worldview was completely erroneous. For every man, like America, is born from his own delusions of grandeur and exceptionalism, emerging into a life of neverending victory over the forces of nature, the truth long since buried under a shroud of glory. The world is ours to conquer, and the future is only a college degree away.
But it must come down. Our childhood fantasies must be revealed for the dancing silhouettes that they were, and the curtain must fall, revealing the ramshackle marionettes of our reality. There we lay, naked and vulnerable on the shores of the American Dream, the waves of the Real splashing over us again and again, kneading us into the sand, threatening at every moment to drag us away to oblivion yet always relenting, leaving us in that most unholy of company: our own thoughts. We may curse our childhood heroes, and in our reactionary narcissism feel that these affronts were made to us personally, but deep down we know that we aren’t that important. Deep down, we know that they did what they did because that was what they always were. That is what they are. That is what they will always be.
That’s right, America. Even Sea World is a bunch of assholes.
So, here we are: Chapter LXIX of Corporate Dickbags Acting Like Corporate Dickbags. Our guests this chapter are the owners and management of the Sea World aquatic theme parks. Joining them are the accounting department and the legal teams representing Sea World. Which group can be crowned the fairest dickbags of them all? Let’s watch and find out.
Our story begins and ends with Tilikum. Captured in 1983 in the North Atlantic, his first home is at a rundown Canadian attraction named Sea Land. Yes, he starts out his career in the Game Boy theme park, not the Super Nintendo one. Sea Land consists of little more than some nets in a marina somewhere. Tilikum is one of three orcas there, and is routinely attacked by the other two whales, leaving large gashes called “rakes” all along his body. This violent behavior is explained throughout the film as the result of whales from different pods (which are essentially different cultures with different languages) being placed in close proximity. Orcas are said to have a matriarchal culture, and Tilikum was at the mercy of his two female housemates. At night, Sea Land had only a single dark metal box to house the three whales. Tilikum would often emerge from his nights in those cramped quarters with fresh rakes and psychosis.
Tilikum’s tenure at Sea Land ends when he attacks and kills a trainer there. The incident causes the owner of Sea Land (which, by all accounts, was on its last legs anyway) to close up shop. Tilikum is sold to Sea World, who envies his breeding capabilities. The murdered trainer is hushed up, and management sends the whale to his new handlers without any warning.
It’s just another page in the story of Sea World’s ridiculous history. While the trainers all care deeply for the animals there, the management sees only dollar signs. Sea World’s antics stretch back to the 1970’s, when Sea World was ejected from the state of Washington and legally barred from capturing whales there. The story of one such capture is documented in the film. The orcas know that the capture teams are targeting their young, so the adults with calves submerge and follow one route while the adults without calves stay at the surface and follow another, leading the capture boats off in the wrong direction. Yes, these are definitely unintelligent animals, guys. The orcas, I mean. Seriously, though, I’m pretty sure any one of these orcas could beat any member of Sea World’s upper management at Starcraft. Maybe they can put that in Blackfish 2.
Anyway, the capture teams have air support, and when the mothers with young eventually come up for air, they are found and cornered. Nets are dropped, the targeted calf is taken, but the rest of the pod remains at their side rather than leaving after they are free to do so. They sing to the captured whale, obviously distressed at the kidnapping of one of their family. Who cares, though, right? Sea World isn’t just doing it for the money. They’re doing it for a shitload of money.
One of the whalers is interviewed, and he is very sincere and apologetic for the whole affair. He notes that he was part of two civil wars in Central and South America, and “saw some things you wouldn’t believe.” Even with that said, he states that the worst thing he’s ever done in his life is being involved with the capture of this whale. He recounts the story of the other whales singing to the captured orca in the stretcher and admits to breaking down crying. He compares the whole incident to kidnapping a young child. This is a man who has obviously seen a few things in his life. When even he thinks that this was seriously wrong, you know it’s a whole new level of fucked up.
Sea World’s higher ups don’t stop there, though. Even though orcas have very strong families in the wild, and young whales stay with their mothers in the same pod throughout their lives, the film recounts two separate instances where the management decides to separate a calf from their mother and move them to another park. In one such incident, the mother starts making sounds that have never been heard before when her child is taken. The lead research scientist comes in and states that she is making long-range vocals. The mother orca is pulling out all the stops in a desperate effort to locate her lost child. Despite this, Sea World’s management apparently doesn’t give a fuck. They even ridicule one of the trainers who expresses doubts about separating a calf from their mother. They’re just animals, right?
It is here, in this mess of corporate mismanagement, that Tilikum emerges. He is not the only whale to exhibit bad behavior in this film, but he is the one who commits murder at Sea World and thus attains infamy. Tilikum is one of the best on-screen villains in some time. Late in the film, one of the trainers notes that Tilikum is not killing because he’s crazy or because doesn’t know what he’s doing; he is killing because he is frustrated, angry, and has no outlet for those feelings. His story is fascinating, and makes for better viewing than many of the background stories of fictional serial killers in Hollywood horror flicks. Really, could there have been any other outcome for Tilikum? He is every bit as fucked up as his life.
The eventual target of his rage is none other than Dawn Brancheau, a trainer beloved by her coworkers, both human and cetacean. It is one of life’s great ironies that Tilikum lashes out at one of the people who loved him the most, much like Michael Meyers attacking Danny Trejo in Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake. In the wake of the tragedy, Tilikum is segregated from the other whales, and spends most of his days in seclusion, only coming out to make a big splash at the end of a show. It’s a sad existence, and a sad ending to a sad story. For their part, though, the Sea World management remains as heartless as ever during the whole affair, going so far as to blame Dawn’s ponytail for her death. So really, who is the bigger asshole here? Sure, Tilikum does also mutilate and murder some random guy who goes swimming in his tank one night for God knows what reason, but at least he never offers a bullshit explanation of his behavior under oath. He kills people; deal with it.
Yes, the Sea World legal geniuses have some great moments in this film. They are not ever interviewed, as everyone currently affiliated with Sea World declined to be interviewed for this film, but the depicted courtroom transcripts have some shining moments. At one point, an OSHA attorney, cross-examining a head trainer from Sea World, asks if Tilikum was capable of aggressive acts towards humans. The woman from Sea World replies to the male attorney: “I know you are capable of rape. I could say to you that all men have the potential to be rapists.” It’s a world class act of trolling and I think I’m in love with the faceless pencil sketch of her. God, it’s just beautiful.
As for why Sea World’s management keeps Tilikum around even though he’s all messed up and kills people, the answer, as always, is money. Tilikum is a male orca, and his sperm is worth quite a bit. Never mind that breeding an orca like Tilikum, who has a documented history of bad behavior, is generally not a good idea if one wants to avoid such potential behavior in his offspring. No, some large percentage of Sea World’s present orcas are now descended from Tilikum. That’s all Tilikum is today, apparently. He exists so that the higher ups can make money off his sperm, while he slowly goes more and more insane in his little pool. At the zenith of his humiliation, he is filmed belly-up in the water while his semen is coaxed out of his erect penis, which is flopped out in broad daylight. Really, there’s nothing left for Tilikum. That’s it. It’s all over.
If this review seems somewhat different from my usual perving-on-Vanessa Hudgens fare, it’s probably because it’s taken me some time to finally write it. I watched this film a week and a half ago, and took screengrabs afterward in anticipation of writing a review, yet it’s only tonight that I’ve been able to finally formulate my thoughts in something resembling a coherent fashion. I think it’s just taken this long for me to fully come to terms with the events depicted in this film. Lest you think that I am just another internet reviewer flying off the handle at an institution I never respected in the first place, I feel compelled to admit that I was a big fan of Sea World as a kid. The behavior of their management documented in this film is just shameful.
One of the only contests I’ve ever won in my life was advertised on KCAL-9 back in the early 90’s. It was a write-in contest with a prize of a free vacation to Sea World San Diego. I won the contest, and even though I was probably the only entrant, I still got a free trip to Sea World. It was not my first visit, but I loved everything about the place, from the shark pool, to the ray pond, to the dolphins, and yes, the orcas. I was very interested in all kinds of marine life in elementary school, and marine biology was one of the fields I felt was a possible avenue I could pursue in life.
I also had a stuffed dolphin from Sea World, who I named Mr. Fin, that was my favorite stuffed animal growing up. He’s probably still hanging out in my old closet at my parent’s house, and I know that he probably disapproves of the corporate douchebaggery on display in this film. Sea World upper management, I am here to inform you that Mr. Fin frowns upon your shenanigans. You should all be ashamed of yourselves.
It is stated in this film that the old name for the orca amongst the American Indian fishermen was “blackfish”, and that they were viewed as animals of great spiritual importance that were not to be trifled with. They are highly developed creatures, with complex social structures and vocalizations. Watching this film reminded me of why I was so interested in whales as a kid in the first place. They are beautiful animals, and at the end of the day, they don’t belong enclosed in tiny pools. They are simply too large and too intelligent for captivity. But as long as there is money to be made, don’t hold your breath for the corporate guys to do the right thing any time soon.
In the meantime, get ready for more harrowing moments, such as the one where Kasatka (one of Tilikum’s progeny) lashes out at a trainer during the finale of a night show, grabbing his foot and repeatedly dragging him down to the bottom of a deep pool. Though the trainer survives, it is only due to his apparent previous scuba diving experience coupled with sheer luck. It’s noted in the film that orcas have never been documented attacking humans in the wild, yet in captivity at Sea World, there is an extensive list of incidents over the decades, most minor, some major, and a few fatal. Sounds like the orcas are pretty happy there, guys. Great work, gentlemen.
Anyway, this is a fantastic film. You know it’s interesting because it held my attention for 80 minutes straight without featuring Vanessa Hudgens’ ass or anything. Really, that’s a major feat, and I long ago forgot that such a thing was even possible. But learning is a lifelong process, and I’ve finally seen an orca film that trumps the climactic bitchslap-with-fluke scene from Moon Warriors. Onward and upward I climb, towards a better understanding of both myself and of our world. Perhaps one day I will finally make sense of this crazy world in which we live, but until then, at least I know that we’re not alone on this planet. If only our corporate masters could finally figure this out, too.