Scrolling Headlines:

Slow start sinks Minutemen against URI -

January 17, 2018

UMass three-game win streak snapped in Rhode Island humbling -

January 17, 2018

Trio of second period goals leads Maine to 3-1 win over UMass hockey -

January 16, 2018

Small-ball lineup sparks UMass men’s basketball comeback over Saint Joseph’s -

January 14, 2018

UMass men’s basketball tops St. Joe’s in wild comeback -

January 14, 2018

UMass women’s track and field have record day at Beantown Challenge -

January 14, 2018

UMass women’s basketball blows halftime lead to Saint Joseph’s, fall to the Hawks 84-79. -

January 14, 2018

UMass hockey beats Vermont 6-3 in courageous win -

January 13, 2018

Makar, Leonard score but UMass can only muster 2-2 tie with Vermont -

January 13, 2018

Pipkins breaks UMass single game scoring record in comeback win over La Salle -

January 10, 2018

Conservative student activism group sues UMass over free speech policy -

January 10, 2018

Report: Makar declines invite from Team Canada Olympic team -

January 10, 2018

Prince Hall flood over winter break -

January 10, 2018

Minutemen look to avoid three straight losses with pair against Vermont -

January 10, 2018

Men’s and women’s track and field open seasons at Dartmouth Relays -

January 10, 2018

Turnovers and poor shooting hurt UMass women’s basketball in another conference loss at St. Bonaventure -

January 8, 2018

Shorthanded, UMass men’s basketball shocks Dayton with 62-60 win -

January 7, 2018

Northampton City Council elects Ryan O’Donnell as new council president -

January 7, 2018

UMass power play stays hot but Minutemen lose 8-3 to UMass Lowell -

January 7, 2018

UMass hockey falls to UMass Lowell in 8-3 blowout -

January 7, 2018

“Blackfish” dives into viewers’ minds

Filmmakers have long understood that animals garner more sympathy than humans. In a strange phenomenon of mass desensitization, the injury or death of a fellow Homo sapien just doesn’t have as much of an impact on moviegoers. Bucking that trend, “Blackfish” invests emotional collateral in both its human and animal subjects. In doing so, it becomes a devastating indictment of aquatic theme parks and their mistreatment of wildlife.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Writer/director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and co-writer Eli Despres focus on their energy on the iconic “killer whales” of SeaWorld. Avoiding the typical pitfall of animal-centric films, humans receive ample screen time throughout the movie. Interviews with survivors, friends and families of victims, along with former SeaWorld professionals, give poignant insight into the underbelly of SeaWorld. Employee testimony lends to Cowperthwaite’s central thesis weight, and tearful anecdotes of both trainer deaths and mishandling of the orcas appeals to the audience’s humanity.

The story of “Blackfish” is tasteful, following a complete and snappy story arc that neither deifies nor demonizes its subject matter. Using this tactic, Cowperthwaite never tries to manipulate the audience. For example, she withholds the inevitable archive footage of orca attacks until just the right moment for maximum effect. Cowperthwaite bides her time with colleagues of the victims and survivors, as well as with the orcas themselves. This helps give dimensionality to her subjects before we see them encounter one another as predator and prey.

It may seem like a stretch, but George Lucas could learn a thing or two from Cowperthwaite. The attention paid to both the trainers and the orcas is exactly what Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequel films lacked. In his landmark video critique of “Star Wars: Episode I,” Mike Stoklasa compares the simplistic (but iconic) fight between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Episode IV” to the highly choreographed (but less effective) sequence at the end of “Episode III.”

He points out that simply pitting two powerful entities against one another isn’t compelling. Instead, he suggests that fleshed-out character development gives conflict meaning. This is what makes the former so memorable and the latter so banal. But while Lucas may have forgotten this idea in the 28 years between “Episode IV” and “Episode III,” Cowperthwaite retains total control of the audience throughout “Blackfish.” I know that my butt scooted right to the edge of my seat in the first five minutes and didn’t leave until the end credits.

“Blackfish” also manages to deliver an incredible amount of information to its audience. The wealth of evidence presented in the film exposes what public relations teams have covered up for decades. Cowperthwaite cleverly juxtaposes the darker side of SeaWorld and its affiliates with official propaganda from the parks.

I remember going to SeaWorld with my mother and sister a few years ago, taking in the marketing rap as if it were gospel. Knowing now not only that SeaWorld mistreats its animals, but also exactly how it is impacting both the orcas and the trainers, means I will probably never make a second trip to the theme park. Many other potential tourists will likely feel the same way.

“Blackfish” is one of the most compelling special interest documentaries I have ever seen. I had little investment in the subject matter prior to entering the theater, but I was instantly enraptured. Rest assured that this tale of the orca is a gripping, perfectly-paced film that prods at every emotional bone in your body. At once thrilling, melancholic, and industry-shaking, “Blackfish” is a must-see.

Søren Hough can be reached at shough@umass.edu.

 

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