EO ★★★★★

I waffled between 4.5 and 5 stars for EO, for several niche reasons. I greatly enjoyed this film on several fronts. If you are a cinephile, this is master-class cinematography, editing, and working of narrative—the protagonist’s perspective doesn’t frequently rely on cheap convention to capture the experience and perspective of a donkey. (And all under 90 minutes!)

More importantly to me (and more difficult to write about) is the film’s attempt to further the dialogue of Earthling compassion. While the half a star is debatable for me in terms of what’s on screen, I think it’s an essential watch as someone interested in radical animal ethics.

I once went snorkeling on a family vacation. This was when I was in..7th? 8th grade? Maybe 9th. But I was young enough to be impressionable, old enough I’d started exploring skepticism towards conventions I had grown up around. I’d been reading Hitchens and Dawkins while rebelliously attending youth group at my dad’s behest; I experimented with vegetarianism upon reflecting on my relationships with my pet companions; and travel had me grappling with my cultural and relative place in the world, a reckoning that wouldn’t be fruitful until moving to New York and college but which sparked new dimensions of myself. 

So I went snorkeling on a vacation in Mexico (v upper middle class, whatever, I’m going somewhere with this). There was a sunken boat out in the shallow, clear bay near our lodgings. I found an aggressive parrotfish living in the boat. I had to hold my breath and swim down to find them, about ten feet below the surface, but I found myself returning over and over, each day of the vacation, because this parrotfish was so insistent on pecking at my goggles each time I dove. 

I hadn’t thought at the time I was aggravating or stressing the fish, but I was curious to their motivation. On the third day of diving, I saw their brood—a group of small fish I assumed were its children, as they had the same distinctive beaky lips. I’d seen the boat as a human artifact—wreck, left and forgotten save for odd divers like me in this shallow bay. I’d seen the pecking fish as an oddity. In a moment, holding my breath underwater, both were recontextualized—the parrotfish was a parent, and the shipwreck was a fortunate home. Both ideas (of parenthood and family, of home and domain) were themes I’d explore in literature and media, and through the lens of science and philosophy, and which in my individual studies and readings I’d extend past human notion to something attempting to be more comprehensive and inclusive of all Earthlings—but this moment felt like revelation to the young adolescent I was, and I can’t help but remember it as an important moment where there was a negotiation between my natural anthropocentric thought and an idealism in abstract concretized in a specific interaction. 

EO could also deserve four and a half stars because I feel its philosophical work is divided between telling humans a story to make them feel, and telling a sincere non-human story, one where we exist and have effects yet are, at the core of the media, decentralized—it pushes and pulls between these poles, and I wanted to see it go two steps further both ways. An impossible task, so I default back to five stars for a movie that tries to ground a lofty ideal in reality and finds (and hopefully is heard) that our treatment of other living things is simultaneously misplaced, inconsistent, and incomplete—reflecting, ultimately, how these ideas are inconsequential because the cultural violence against animals we inherit echoes through our media and our actions. 

Yes, EO (the protagonist) is a beautiful animal, and they make us laugh, cry, and think—the film is torn between asking us to imagine what they think, and to wrestle with what their presence evokes from the people and other organisms around them. Simultaneously the film wants us to impart human emotions rn thought unto this nonhuman animal and tried to capture a nonhuman experience of living. This is a tough goal, but the film (I think) hopes the dual approach will capture viewers into the experience and close the distance between us and the protagonist, generating novel thought about them.

But does it matter in the end, when so many will still see the animal as lesser, as an object or asset? Who will be brave enough to walk away from this film with deeper redefinition of living and life than just ‘don’t kill animals’? 

Hopefully at least some—but realistically, surely, sadly, not most of us, at least not today. The film knows this, too.

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