REVIEWS: Earthlings

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2006:

Written, produced & directed
by Shaun Monson;
narrated by Joaquin Phoenix
Nation Earth (4000-D West Magnolia Blvd., Suite 260, Burbank, CA
91505;, 2006. DVD, 95 minutes. $19.95.

Actor Joaquin Phoenix in Earthlings explains video clip after
clip of shock video footage of the use and abuse of animals for food,
clothing, entertainment and medical research. Much of the material
was obtained by activists working under cover.
Earthlings has been compared to The Animals’ Film, narrated
by Julie Christie, which in 1981 helped to raise animal advocacy to
global prominence. Very few people were thoroughly aware, at that
time, of the issues that The Animals’ Film raised, and the shocking
aspects of it were demonstrably effective.

For us, 25 years later, as confirmed vegetarians and animal
activists, viewing a 95-minute sequence of horror was simply
overwhelming. We saw dolphins shuddering and convulsing as Japanese
fisherman cut their throats, a little fox or dog being flayed alive
at a Chinese fur farm, the drawn-out suffering of laboratory
animals, and an elephant escaping from the misery of a circus,
only to be ineptly killed by a hail of bullets.
Phoenix and producer/director Shaun Monson hope to jar their
audience out of denial, into realizing the full extent of human
cruelty. There can be no doubt that this is achieved. Earthlings is
well-crafted, and the music by Moby is appropriate.
No doubt Phoenix and Monson also want their audience to feel
enraged enough to respond to the cruelty they show in some useful
way, not just to be stunned and overwhelmed. Whether shock is the
best way to do this, is to our minds questionable. Campaign-ing for
animal welfare, we find ourselves addressing schools, business
associations, service clubs, wildlife associations, and many other
audiences who would be unable to sit through even half of Earthlings.
Even if they could, they would be driven yet further into denial.
Giving people nightmares with unforgettable images of mindless
brutality certainly sickens the viewer, but does it have a
measurable positive effect? Does it draw viewers into activism, or
have the opposite effect, driving them away in horror?
Many viewers will feel compelled after seeing Earthlings to
do something to stop the cruelty. Yet one cannot assume that simply
because people who are already predisposed toward activism are moved
by something, that others will react the same way.
Earthlings raises crisply the question of how much explicit
material on animal cruelty people need to see before they become
vegetarians, boycott leather, fur and wool, etcetera. In our
experience, most people can only stomach a small amount of explicit
cruelty before switching off to protect their psyches. Our own
campaign video on canned lion hunting in South Africa contains only
four minutes of explicit footage. Even at that, we get complaints.
Some people leave the hall rather than endure our videos. And that
is their response to only four minutes, not 95.
Monson and Phoenix might suggest that one need only show that
part of their DVD which refers to the relevant topic, say zoos or
circuses, rather than try to force audiences to watch the entire
video. The DVD format, which allows one to select certain sections
from the menu, lends itself to such discriminating use.
Using the DVD as a reference out of which the educator takes
relevant portions would certainly be one good way to use Earthlings.
Alone, though, it may not be enough. It needs to be part of a
complete humane education curriculum, which covers the subject
The brutality of, for instance, factory farms, needs to be
shown as part of a comprehensive treatment of vegetarianism, in
which the health advantages and environmental and religious facets of
the issue are dealt with, along with the animal welfare issues.
Only then can people make an informed decision on whether to become
vegetarian. Merely shocking them with explicit animal welfare
material is unlikely to convince most people to alter
long-established lifestyle diet and habits.
As an aid to humane education, Earthlings is a valuable
source of visual material. But as a stand-alone movie to play to a
target audience in entirety, in expectation that viewers will rush
to become animal activists, it might be less effective, and perhaps
even counter-productive.
There is also a mystical aspect to Earthlings. The scope of
cruelty throughout the world raises a spiritual issue: whether
humankind is a plague upon the face of the earth, so that our
apocalyptic demise would be a blessing for virtually all other life
Certainly that is the view from space, as we watch ourselves
spreading like a virus, polluting and destroying everything we
touch. Despite the arrogant human belief that humans are the
earthlings most favoured by the Deity, no person watching this video
could fail to marvel at the cruel ignorance of the master species,
or at the failure of organized religions to curb human disrespect for
Most humans are too busy working to survive and prosper to
care deeply for the suffering of other earthlings. What this video
shows in horrendous clarity is that cruelty to animals is intricately
entwined with human activities of all sorts, and that it will take a
miracle to bring it to an end. We have to hope that big miracles can
have small beginnings.
–Chris Mercer & Beverley Pervan

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