With its graphic footage of violence against animals, Earthlings (Buy Direct) is a very difficult DVD to watch, but the real difficulty lies in being forced to think about one’s role in the horrors being depicted. And I don’t know how anyone can watch it without feeling compelled to do something to stop the cruelty.
Written and directed by Shaun Monson, Earthlings takes an unflinching look at the myriad ways in which animals are used and abused as companion animals, as food, as clothing, as entertainment, and as scientific subjects. Two-thirds of the footage is undercover videos, taking the viewer to places where video cameras would probably never be allowed, including a circus elephant training facility, where an elephant trainer explains to a new employee how to dig the hook into an elephant’s flesh and twist it in order to teach the elephant to obey.
Most of the footage speaks for itself. Scenes showing factory farms, slaughterhouses, hunting, bullfights, puppy mills, and primates being used in head injury experiments will shock and educate those who might believe the more idyllic portrayals of how our society treats animals. For me, the most haunting moment of the film is a scene at a fur farm. A skinned animal, perhaps a fox, although the species of the animal is surprisingly difficult to identify without the fur, lies glistening with blood and white fat and muscle. The creature is still alive, lifting her skinless head and blinking at the camera.
Even a scene of a doomed fish thrashing about on the deck of a pleasure boat, a common enough scene for those of us who have fished in the past, has new meaning when the camera forces us to watch the fish desperately struggling to hang on to life.
The music by Moby sets a somber tone without being intrusive, and the narration by Joaquin Phoenix is very matter of fact. Though the script at times seems a bit heavy-handed, even quoting Shakespeare’s King Lear at one point, Phoenix’s delivery is calm and measured, in contrast with the visual horrors unfolding on-screen. And instead of calling for veganism and mass protests (the list of ways to help animals was cut from the film, but is included in the DVD’s deleted scenes), Phoenix’s voice asks questions that many will find uncomfortable. While watching animals being loaded into a gas chamber at an animal shelter, we’re asked, “Can we keep animals as companions and still address their needs? Is our keeping companion animals in their best interest, or are we exploiting them?”
In some ways, Earthlings is an updated version of The Animals Film, an early 1980s documentary narrated by Julie Christie. Both films consist of short clips of documentary footage of animal suffering, supplemented with narration that adds context and statistics. While The Animals Film introduced a naive public to factory farming, Earthlings also depicts abuses beyond factory farming, such as gratuitous beatings at a hog farm, and prohibited practices being carried out in a kosher slaughterhouse. The much-needed update shows that nearly 30 years later, the animals are no better off.
The unrated 95-minute film was originally released in 2005, and issued on DVD in 2008. The DVD (Buy Direct) is $19.99 and includes deleted scenes, two featurettes, and subtitles in ten languages. The two featurettes are actually short monologues from the filmmaker, explaining some of the difficulties in making, distributing and marketing a film that is not exactly date night material and that no television network would ever show. You can also view the film online for only $2.99.
For those of us in the animal rights movement, watching Earthlings will reinforce your convictions and will show you things you’ve only read about. If you’re not already an animal activist, this film might make you one.