Earthlings. Dir. Shaun Monson. Nation Earth. 2005.
Fig. 1 The original release poster for Earthlings, the film’s oft repeated challenge to the viewer to ‘make the connection’ features prominently alongside pictures of plants, animals and the evil emperor Commodus (representing humankind).
‘How do you know if someone is Vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you’. So proclaims an increasingly popular meme. Type preachy into Google and the all-knowing almanac of our age offers you ‘preachy vegan?’ knowingly. If we combine the title of Shaun Monson’s 2005 animal liberation documentary Earthlings with the v-word and again consult the oracle we are offered two starkly contrasting results: ‘Earthlings: vegan maker’ and ‘Earthlings: vegan propaganda'. These results effectively epitomise the two broad readings of the film. In short Earthlings considers human exploitation of a wide-variety of animals within five broad industries. These are described by narrator Joaquin Phoenix as the ‘five ways animals serve mankind’ and are:
Pets: focussing on puppy farms, pet abandonment and euthanasia.
Food: focussing on the meat, dairy and fishing industries.
Clothing: focussing on the leather and fur industries.
Entertainment: focussing on rodeo, bull-fighting and circus/zoo animals.
Research: focussing on testing on animals.
Phoenix’s introduction may seem somewhat ethereal and ambiguous but it is soon surfing a tidal wave of activist footage; a relentless montage of graphic violence against animals that continues, almost completely unabated, for the films duration. Earthlings’overarching argument is that human treatment of animals is speciesist and exploitative and the film is unashamedly trying incredibly hard to win round every viewer to this point of view. The film is an uncomfortably long dose of shock therapy; it is almost impossible to sit through it without having a strong emotional response. The film achieves breadth more than depth; small fish, for example, are glanced over in favour of depictions of the farmyard animals that provoke a more emotive response. This may seem hypocritical; undoubtedly the film is focussing on the worst and most shocking footage at its disposal. The film’s argument is definitely one-sided. Some would argue that this justifies the aforementioned ‘vegan propaganda’ title but offering an apologist perspective would only convolute a film that relies on harsh simplicity. The film uses the universally guaranteed shock value of its montage as a foundation for a convincing, if difficult, polemic.
Fig. 2: A still from the film, showing the captions used throughout the film. Phoenix calmly tells the viewer: ‘the inversion process causes cattle to aspirate blood, or breathe blood into the lungs’.
Documentary don Bill Nichols characterises documentaries as attempting to ‘challenge assumptions and alter perceptions’. With its in-your-face moral message and talk of alternatives Earthlings qualifies resoundingly. The film relies heavily on montage and third-party footage; this is generically conventional, think Planet Earth with a different type of hidden-camera and a much more morbid focus. The footage itself is often disturbingly ambiguous but Phoenix is always on hand to offer explanations the processes at work on the screen. When necessary these are paired with simple clarifying captions (fig. 2). Phoenix’s tone is so calm it becomes monotonous, as is the rather vanilla ambient music provided by electronica grandee Moby. Both of these influences devices serve the conventional stylistic purpose of helping guide the viewer and provide emotional context, albeit sometimes through their absence rather than inclusion. The film’s dependence on hidden camera footage is - when coupled with the its socially controversial message – reason enough to place it within the animal liberation subgenre. Within this sub genre extensive use of hidden camera footage is a common stylistic feature. The footage gives an insight into subject industries that seem familiar in part due to the simple categories they are placed in; it constitutes ‘a reverse panopticon … elevating the audience above the barriers to witness prisoner conditions’.
Figure 3: The online trailer for Earthlings. Following a limited festival release that saw the film win a string of awards Nation Earth have released the film for free through various streaming and download sites. However the trailer is still of interest as it almost exclusively utilises altogether more pastoral imagery.
The promotional poster for Earthlings prominently challenges the viewer to ‘make the connection’ (fig.1). Again the potential ambiguity of this statement is overcome by the definitive content of the film. The most significant of the connections are, it seems, the connections between consumption and exploitation and human suffering and ‘nonhuman animal’ suffering. The introduction confronts the viewer with images of the Holocaust whilst Phoenix states: ‘one’s suffering can be counted equally with the like suffering of any other being’. Monson’s readiness to equate animal suffering with the Holocaust is provocative but relevant; Holocaust documentaries rely on similar montages of a multitude of industrial brutality. Earthlings constantly emphasises this industrial scale. The disclaimer that precedes the film states: ‘The images you are about to see are not isolated cases. These are the Industry Standard’. This is not Monson’s apology for his graphic creation or an example of the ‘some scenes have been created for your entertainment’ disclaimers that pepper ‘reality’ television; it is his lamentation for the reality that is depicted within as well as a reiteration of the factual nature of his work.
Figure 4: The disclaimer that Earthlings opens with is an interesting play on much-manipulated conventions within the entertainment industry
The majority of the film’s clips provide only brief snapshots of cruelty perpetrated against animals. Monson’s decision to use short clips is obviously down to more than just the painstaking espionage involved; the terrible mixture reflects the shocking variety of abuse. The speed of the montage values immediate shock value over detailed consideration of the circumstances on the screen. These short clips also invite recycling into shorter, more watchable segments. Monson’s choice to distribute the film freely through various online sources shows awareness of the film’s viral-video potential. His striking advertising posters feature endorsements that reiterate this awareness; in one Phoenix tells the viewer ‘for every one person who sees Earthlings, they will tell three’ (fig.5). Monson also uses the groupings above (food, entertainment etc.) to provide a straightforward reminder of the consumer’s relationship with the processes on screen. When considered as a whole Earthlings is uniquely broad in its subject matter. Many animal liberation/activist documentaries have a more specific remit; films such as Maximum Tolerated Dose and Food Inc. focus on animal welfare in one of Earthlings’ chosen industries, while films such as Blackfish focus on the animal welfare practices of a particular company. As well as these groupings three constants bind Monson’s fragmented footage together: Phoenix’s narration, Moby’s soundtrack and the constant depiction of animals as victims. Occasionally though the music and narration are suspended in order to create a void that forces the viewer to give their undivided attention to the on-screen brutality.
Fig 5: An advertising poster for Earthlings featuring an image of the narrator, Joaquin Phoenix, alongside a quote.
The ‘entertainment’ segment features the most significant departure from these unifying influences. An ABC news-clip of a circus manager is the only footage of a human speaking directly to camera; he states their elephants are ‘never hit’. This assertion is immediately juxtaposed with footage of elephants being beaten and a trainer encouraging his protégé to ‘sink that fucking hook’. The next scene, probably the longest in the film, focuses on an escaped circus elephant named Tyke. The soundtrack and narration cease in order to emphasise the sound of the clip itself. A cacophony of screams, shouts and shots assault the senses, there is no need for clarification from the narrator and Moby’s already unobtrusive music is rendered unnecessary. At this point Monson’s continuity editing is particularly telling, images of abused elephants establish Tyke’s status as a victim, he is then shown violently raging against his trainers and spectators before being shot against the background of screams from a disgusted bystander (fig. 6). Monson picks an interesting point to stall the flickering montage. The abuse of circus animals is already socially controversial. It is easier for the viewer to question violence they aren’t party to. Cultural portrayals stress the rarity, magnificence and intelligence of elephants. In this case there is already a consensus. Although Tyke is overcome by yet more violence and the montage rolls on the footage also has a defined backstory; search engines throw back millions of results for the ‘Earthlings Elephant’. Tyke is the film’s only subject afforded a name and his story, coupled with the films online availability, opens unlimited avenues for further viewer research.
Fig. 6: A still from Earthlings featuring the Elephant Tyke. The escaped circus elephant is shot repeatedly by police officers while an angry onlooker shouts (the subtitled) criticism.
Monson does occasionally choose to juxtapose the hidden footage and these sparse contrasts give an insight into the nature of the escape he imagines for animals such as Tyke. The film’s stereotypical opening and closing shots of Earth in space are reminiscent of a science documentary(fig. 3). Monson’s creative intentions are reflected by Apollo 8’s Frank Borman: ‘When you're finally … looking back on earth, all those differences are going to blend … maybe this really is one world …why the hell can't we learn to live together like decent people’. Monson chooses to equate the human suffering of the holocaust to animal suffering; equally he equates this answer to inter-human violence to the problem of animal violence he depicts. Earthlings’ trailers featured similar uplifting montages (fig. 3) and does the peaceful montages of animals in the wild that characterise the film’s closing scene are suggestive of an alternative approach and understanding of animals which would allow animal exploitation to be overcome.
Fig. 7: A still from Earthlings featuring the introductory shots of Earth from space. These shots are typical of nature documentaries and Sci-Fi films including recent releases such as Gravity and Interstellar.
The ‘non-human animals’ depicted in Earthlings are presented as helpless victims of domination by humans. This domination is omnipresent Monson’s footage and is constantly referred to by the film’s narrator. The destruction depicted is relentless and would become repetitive were it not for the startling variety of recordings utilised. The montage rolls on like the conveyor belts in its hidden camera footage, footage which provides a rare insight into the inner-workings of the subject industries. This insight is intended to disgust and educate the viewer equally with the intent of empowering them to take positive action to address speciesism. Monson is aware the film’s argument is polemic, he immediately presents the idea that there are three stages of truth: ‘ridicule, violent opposition and acceptance’. This catchy and age-old quote must be taken as hyperbole. Animal-rights activists may well be subjected to a barrage of comical internet criticism but the violent crusade has yet to materialise. Despite the famous Hollywood precedent it seems unlikely that anyone featured in Earthlings will rise up and kill Joaquin Phoenix. In reality the battle to stop such animal abuse is dependent on legislature and consumer pressure. Monson hopes that the visible helplessness of the animals will spur interest in his audience and create viral exposure that will lead to viewers reconsidering their position and making the all-important connection between themselves and their non-human animal counterparts.
Earthlings ultimately presents animals as different from, but equal to, humans. As Phoenix states: ‘Beneath the many differences there is sameness’. Earthlings’ narrator weaves a connection between animals and humans on the basis of a shared desire to avoid pain. The scene with Tyke illustrates this desire well. When Tyke is stampeding around the big-top he is acting like an elephant, rather than conforming to the will of his trainers. By virtue of his species he is afforded a fleeting moment of freedom and vengeance. Monson presents a film that breaks down boundaries in order to unify all aspects of animal life and experience and prove that all animals, human or non-human are earthlings deserving of freedom from suffering.
Figure 8: a still from a short montage that ends the film. This montage presents an alternate reality of sorts, with videos animals and humans living in peace placed alongside stunning scenery shots.
Werner Herzog’s celebrated documentary Grizzly Man also premiered in 2005. The film addresses the boundary between Humans and Animals; specifically between the maverick ursophile Timothy Treadwell and the bears that eventually cause his death. Herzog, somewhat predictably, states that ‘the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder’. Ultimately Herzog supports boundaries and separation. He considers the bears with their ‘blank stare’ that ‘speaks only of a half-bored interest in food’ as the other. He evidently believes there is no reciprocal relationship between animals and Treadwell. The relentless violence of humans in Monson’s film reflects a similar belief, particularly in hostility and murder. However Monson’s closing sequence offers an antidote to Herzog’s grim world view; humans are the primary harbingers of violence in Earthlings, a film that challenges the social conventions that it considers responsible for chaos and murder. Humans are sentient, they can ‘make the connection’ and move away from the ‘blank stare’ that characterises Herzog’s bear. Grizzly Man promotes distance between humans and animals and discourages ideas of animal equality whereas Earthlings ultimately presents the opposite viewpoint, encouraging viewers to progress from ‘estrangement to kinship’ by shedding their anthropocentric, speciesist world view by making changes to their lifestyle. Veganism is, in Nation Earth’s opinion, a good start.  Just be prepared for the teasing memes.
 Earthlings, Dir. Shaun Monson. Nation Earth. 2005.
 ‘About Earthlings’ (2012) <https://web.archive.org/web/20140625060234/ https://earthlings.com/?page_id=10> [accessed 22 November 2014].
 Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, 2nd edn (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001), p. 1.
 Carrie Packwood Freeman and Scott Tulloch, 'Was blind but now I see', in Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human, ed. by Anat Pick and Guinevere Narraway (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), p. 124.
 ‘Looking Back at the Earth Quotes’ (2012) <https://www.spacequotations.com/earth.html> [accessed 22 November 2014].
 Grizzly Man. Dir. Werner Herzog. Lions Gate Entertainment, 2005.
Nichols, B., Introduction to Documentary, 2nd edn (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001)
Chapters in books:
Packwood Freeman, C., Tulloch. S., 'Was blind but now I see', in Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human, ed. by Anat Pick and Guinevere Narraway (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), pp. 110-126
Pick, A., ' Three Worlds: Dwelling and Worldhood on Screen', in Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human, ed. by Anat Pick and Guinevere Narraway(New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), p. 21-36
Herzog, W. (dir), Grizzly Man. Lions Gate Entertainment, 2005.
Monson, S. (dir), Earthlings, Nation Earth. 2005.
Webpages without authors:
‘Looking Back at the Earth Quotes’ (2012) <https://www.spacequotations.com/earth.html> [accessed 22 November 2014].
Earthlings, Dir. Christopher Guest. Nation Earth. 2005.
‘About Unity’ (2014) <https://unitythemovement.com/about/> [accessed 21 November 2014].
‘About Earthlings’ (2012) <https://web.archive.org/web/20140625060234/ https://earthlings.com/?page_id=10> [accessed 22 November 2014].
IMDB page for Earthlings:
Official website of Earthlings, including free access to the full film online:
Official website of Unity (Monson’s forthcoming sequel):
A book chapter considering ‘Animal Liberation Documentaries’ Deconstruction of Barriers to Witnessing Injustice’:
Carrie Packwood Freeman and Scott Tulloch, 'Was blind but now I see', in Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human, ed. by Anat Pick and Guinevere Narraway (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), p. 110-126
A book chapter considering ‘films in which nature and conceptions of worldhood come together’:
Pick, A., ' Three Worlds: Dwelling and Worldhood on Screen', in Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human, ed. by Anat Pick and Guinevere Narraway (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), p. 21-36
An interview with director Shaun Monson discussing the footage featured in Earthlings:
An interview with director Shaun Monson discussing his views on speciesism:
An interview with director Shaun Monson concerning the ideas behind his new film, Unity, and its relationship to Earthlings:
Shaun Monson introducing the trailer for Unity. This video accompanied a 2013 Kickstarter campaign to fund the film:
A longer, broader interview with Monson (35 minutes give or take) that discusses the interviewer’s response to Earthlings and asks various questions regarding the reasons behind Monson’s belief and his decision to make the film:
The Official page for Earthlings, the page still posts regular updates on the topic of animal rights etc:
Shaun Monson’s Twitter page: