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The feeling of dread is palpable from the first frames of "Blackfish," where we are taken underwater while hearing 911 tapes that describe a SeaWorld trainer's fatal encounter with a killer whale in Orlando. The frightening setup recalls the classic opening scene from "Jaws" - and lets us know right away that the filmmakers intend to make a storytelling splash. They succeed. Gabriela Cowperthwaite's riveting movie should prove to be one of the best (and most talked about) documentaries of the year: It not only delivers astonishing, suspenseful footage that makes it a legitimate thriller, but also serves up thoughtful meditations about using wild animals for our own entertainment. Though the beginning of the film pretty much tells us the end - the shocking killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau by orca Tilikum in 2010 - the heart of this story is the revelation that this tragedy didn't occur in a vacuum. Every orca has a backstory, and Tilikum, as it turns out, has a doozy of one, starting with his harrowing capture in the North Atlantic in 1983, when he was only about 2 years old. The scenes in which the baby whales are hunted down are heartbreaking - like watching a child snatched from his parents. The film chronicles Tilikum's history of being abused, and just as they do in classic horror movies, authorities sidestep Tilikum's troubled past, as he gets dispatched to SeaWorld - with appalling consequences. Yet Cowperthwaite has more on her mind than simply exposing SeaWorld's questionable dealings with Tilikum. The film makes a strong case that the whales are incredibly intelligent, evolved creatures that aren't suited for small pens, no matter how cute and humanlike we think these animals are when they do tricks. For the most part, Cowperthwaite keeps the preachiness in check, letting the scientists, former SeaWorld trainers and other witnesses tell it as it is. Indeed, the scary training scenes - uniformly gripping - do most of the talking. While we're on the subject of talking, though, it would have been nice to hear SeaWorld's side of things. Of course, SeaWorld didn't exactly cooperate with filmmakers, but couldn't they have gotten someone to at least summarize the management's views? Instead, a cue card appears - at the end - saying that SeaWorld refused all interview requests. Not exactly a textbook move if you want to appear fair-minded. But this is a powerful film that treats both the trainer's and whale's fate as tragedy. It will make you think twice before your next visit to SeaWorld. Courtesy: David Lewis, San Francisco ChronicleOfficial Trailer
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Directed by: 
Gabriela Cowperthwaite
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