The Gate: elegant and polished sci-fi body horror critical of politics and neoliberal capitalism

Matt Westrup, “The Gate” (2011)

Deriving its title from a couple of lines in the seventh chapter in the Book of Matthew in the Bible (“… for the gate that leads to damnation is wide, the road is clear and many choose to travel it…”), in the context of a warning of Hell and damnation for those who prefer an easy path to comfort and salvation, this short sci-fi horror film is an elegant and polished lesson in understatement and visual narration. A series of mystery deaths in London attracts the attention of politicians and bureaucrats who convene a parliamentary select committee to determine what action to take. In a meeting, Dr Ackerson (John Mawson) describes the cases – and as he does so, the film re-enacts them, the second and third cases in considerable detail – and tells Under Secretary Johnson (Robert Rowe) what the most likely causes of the physical transformations leading to the deaths of the unfortunate victims, based on autopsies performed on them and the details noted by the attending doctors, are. Dr Ackerson states that the victims had in their possession at the time of their deaths pharmaceutical products obtained from an unregulated online seller that contained a synthetic hormone chemically similar to one involved in DNA construction and repair, and that it was the uncontrolled use of such products with such a potent hormone that led to the victims blowing up as they did into mutant monstrosities.

The meeting comes to an end with Johnson offering bland assurances that those involved in selling the products to the victims will be found and dealt with accordingly. Dr Ackerson expresses misgivings that other unlicensed and unregulated pharmaceutical retailers will offer the same or similar products to unsuspecting online buyers – but the response he gets from Johnson is curt and patronising. As always, the authorities will take Ackerson’s warning “into consideration”.

The re-enactment of one victim’s transformation and death is a wonder to behold: the camera’s placing in front of a barricade of police cars and an ambulance, so that audiences get only glimpses of the horror stalking about on the other side of the barricade, is ingenious. While the victim’s transformation is taking place, the film jumps to shots of a helicopter landing and police in full body armour taking up their positions stealthily, ready to fire on the monster. That a scene of horror is playing out in a setting familiar to most people – the city streets of London, with police cars and an ambulance vehicle, and police officers in almost full gladiatorial combat mode – may be the most terrifying aspect of this sub-plot in the film.

The body horror theme is expressed in a narrative at once familiar and yet new and horrifying: Western medical technology has now developed drugs that can reactivate dormant so-called “junk” DNA, the functions of which remain poorly understood. With this narrative comes another one suggesting, intentionally or unintentionally, that a capitalist system allowing both individual freedom of choice and an unregulated market of gene therapies could very well lead to disaster. The insinuation is that government regulation of new pharmaceutical products involving gene therapies is required; but when the government in question is one of incompetent and easily corrupted politicians and bureaucrats preferring to look the other way and brush complex matters aside, the most likely outcome will be more suffering and more victims treated as statistics and monsters, not as real people deserving of sympathy and care. The gate leading to damnation remains open and wide for corporations obsessed with profit and rising share price to run through, dragging with them countless numbers of victims seduced by their promises and advertising, and politicians relying on their money for election campaign funds.

The film serves as a pitch for a longer feature film which partly explains the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending and the tedious sequence of title cards which unnecessarily narrows the film’s potential subject matter and themes to one of an unregulated global pharmaceutical industry preying on people’s insecurities and anxieties in a global capitalist system that demands more and more from them.

The horrors behind the beauty of a memorial site in “Europe’s Unknown Death Camp – Jasenovac – Croatia – WWII”

Graham Phillips, “Europe’s Unknown Death Camp – Jasenovac – Croatia – WWII” (22 April 2021)

I had not known of the infamous World War II concentration / death camp in Jasenovac, established by the Independent State of Croatia in 1941 in Occupied Yugoslavia, in which tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people were brutally murdered by the Ustaše regime. One of the largest camp complexes in Europe – the third largest according to Wikipedia – the Jasenovac camp complex became notorious for its barbaric methods of murdering people: prison guards were often hired from local farming communities and they killed their victims – Serbs, Roma, Jews, anti-fascist dissenters – as if they were animals, with blunt objects such as hammers, knives and axes. The camp was run from 1941 to 1945, when the Ustaše tried to wipe out evidence of the camp by digging up and burning corpses, killing all remaining prisoners, and torching the camp buildings so that only ruins, smoke, ash and burnt bodies were found by Yugoslav forces when they came to liberate the camp. Jasenovac and other similar camps in Croatia represent the only major concentration camp network operated by a regime to imprison and kill Jews and other ethno-religious groups and dissenters independently of Nazi German control, though the Ustaše were also allies of the Germans at the time.

In this short video, British journalist Graham Phillips visits the Jasenovac memorial site on the banks of the Sava River near the Bosnia-Herzegovina border. The camera (probably a drone) pans out over the now-peaceful and bucolic rural scene, interrupted only by a monumental statue in the shape of a flower commemorating the dead. Archived films from the 1940s and sub-titles convey the stark truth about the horrific crimes committed at Jasenovac; even now, 80 years after the camp was established, controversy over the actual numbers killed with Croatian sources attempting to minimise the numbers of victims continues.

The video is well made with a very judicious selection of background music that encourages silence and respect for the dead. The usually gregarious Phillips keeps his narration to an absolute minimum save for explanations about the nature of the statue at the memorial site. Viewers will be most struck by the difference between the peace and beauty of the site and the surrounding landscape with its calm and gentle river, and the thought of the horrors suffered by the Jasenovac camp victims.

Obstacles to the China Path in Latin America: a talk that fails to address the elephant north of Latin America

Paul Cockshott, “Obstacles to the China Path in Latin America” (19 December 2021)

This video is a recording of a brief talk that UK economics academic Paul Cockshott gave to a panel at the World Association of Political Economy in Shanghai, in December 2021. The talk is accompanied by a small series of slides which essentially illustrate significant points in Cockshott’s talk. The main thrust of this brief lecture is that without significant land reform in Latin America, the continent will be unable to replicate China’s path from poverty in the 1970s to global success with the world’s largest economy and largest middle class – and the political clout that goes with that economic success – in the space of roughly 45 years.

In his talk, Cockshott quotes from 18th-century British classical economists Adam Smith and David Richardo, both of whom noted that in a society where the bulk of national income or the income from production goes to a landlord class that spends the income on unproductive uses (such as gambling, property speculation or spending on luxury goods), there is little capital accumulation that can be directed into investing in production. Production cannot expand and new jobs cannot be created for workers. In a later century, Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto wrote that the unproductive landlord class had to be abolished through heavy progressive taxation, the abolition of inheritance rights and the abolition of property in land, with rent income from land to be used for public purposes. These principles were followed by the Communist Party of China after 1949, with rent income going to communes for local investment purposes or, in the form of taxes, to the government for national public projects; the result has been that China has been able to accumulate large amounts of capital necessary for investment in major economic projects and enterprises, both public and private. In turn, labour productivity rises, new jobs are created, the demand for labour rises rapidly, and real wages (what people are able to buy with the money they earn) rise quickly as well.

There are other principles that Marx noted in The Communist Manifesto – the centralisation of credit in the form of a national bank controlled by the State; State centralisation of the means of communication and transport; extending factories and State-owned instruments of production by improving soils and bringing waste-lands into productive use – which the CPC has also followed, with the State controlling or regulating China’s financial industry and transport networks, investing in or controlling essential industries, and carrying large-scale conservation projects that have turned huge areas of desert into forest and land that can be cultivated.

For Cockshott, the path that Latin American nations need to follow is clear: these nations must do what China did and get rid of their unproductive, parasitic and corrupt landowning classes (who may also dominate politics and the media, financial and transport industries) and establish governments under the leadership of workers and peasants.

Unfortunately in his brief talk, Cockshott does not say how the power of the landowners in nations like Brazil, Chile or Ecuador can be broken and transferred to the working classes; neither does he note that all Latin American nations may have distinctive characteristics that mean that following China’s path precisely may either be difficult or need to follow a different path. The failure of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez to revive agriculture in his country and make it more self-sufficient in staple foodstuffs because, among other things, the oil industry offered more money and easier working conditions to labourers illustrates that Venezuela’s particular path must take a direction that acknowledges the country’s particular characteristics and economic context in which dependence on energy resources will hamper efforts towards economic autarky. Above all, in carrying out revolutionary economic reforms aiming at redistributing wealth, especially land, among the working classes and being able to control credit and capital accumulation for investment purposes, Latin American nations risk the ire of a huge and jealous power to their north, one that will not hesitate to overthrow their governments either directly or indirectly and replace them with governments that maintain corrupt elites whom that jealous power the United States can control.

Why Do So Many Still Buy Into The Narrative? – a talk on mass psychosis in Western societies under pandemic conditions

Dan Astin-Gregory, “Why Do So Many Still Buy Into The Narrative?” (Dan Astin-Gregory / Pandemic Podcast, 22 September 2021)

Dan Astin-Gregory is an entrepreneur, strategist and thought leader who established the Pandemic Podcast channel to interview various scientific, medical and other professionals on issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic that are not being addressed. In this episode which was streamed live on 22 September 2021, Astin-Gregory interviews Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University, whose observations of people during the COVID-19 pandemic over 18 months have led him to conclude that in all Western societies the majority of people appear to be under some kind of hypnosis which Desmet calls “mass formation”. It appears that the narrative of a virulent coronavirus and the mass lockdowns that have been brought in by Western governments across Europe, North America and the western Pacific region has brought into being a mass hypnotic state characterised by unquestioning mass conformity to restrictions handed down by governments and corporations, and the erasure of all individuality and individual opinion. This state of mass psychosis in turn can lead to extreme scapegoating of outsiders and mass support for even more restrictions of individual freedoms and intrusions into privacy, establishing the context in which totalitarian government can arise and atrocities including genocide can occur.

Desmet identifies four conditions in society for mass formation to take place: lack of societal bonding (alienation, anomie, isolation: very common in Western societies that emphasise individuality and self-reliance at the expense of community values); a feeling of a lack of purpose of meaning experienced by a majority of people in society; widespread free-floating anxiety and stress; high levels of aggression and hostility. All these conditions are likely to be interrelated, all of them reinforcing one another. There may well be other factors in Western society that contribute to mass formation: technologies, structures, institutions, ideologies and attitudes in society that weaken social bonds, transfer individual loyalties from families to government or corporations, encourage atomisation and polarisation, and manipulate and exploit people’s emotions for profit – over time, all have surely paved the way for mass formation based on fear and exploiting intolerance and people’s desire to belong and to have purpose. The COVID-19 pandemic has given people and institutions a new purpose and a feeling of bonding that help to channel their anger and to relieve their fears, and propaganda from governments and corporations through mass media strengthens and directs these new connections – even as other aspects of society and culture collapse or disintegrate.

Having identified the conditions favouring mass formation, Desmet goes on to explain that totalitarian states differ from classical dictatorships in that totalitarian states become more oppressive once they have purged their political opposition whereas classical dictatorships (based around a leader or a clique) tend to relax once their political opposition disappears. In a totalitarian state, a segment of society supports the oppressive measures; another, larger segment submits to the measures without complaint; a third segment opposes the oppression. This leads to the question of why some people are unaffected by mass formation and how those people resist mass formation. Desmet references French philosopher Gustave le Bon (“The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind“) in explaining that those layers of society usually considered the most intelligent or educated tend to be the most conformist and to be most affected by mass formation. Astin-Gregory’s question about whether emotionally sensitive people might be more resistant to mass formation is answered partially in the negative: Desmet mentions he knows of emotionally sensitive people who have fallen heavily for the mass psychosis.

In response to Astin-Gregory’s queries about how to release people from mass hypnosis, Desmet urges those who oppose the mass formation to continually speak out against the relentless propaganda. Propaganda is most effective when it is constantly repeated and supported by many media outlets, and buttressed and reinforced so much that it becomes part of the air one breathes and goes unchallenged; and the voices that oppose the propaganda become few because they are heavily policed and repressed. Logic, research and the use of statistics or argument can be useful but are limited as tools against propaganda that exploit emotion and fear. Creating an alternative narrative may be useful to counter the narrative that sustains the mass psychosis – but Desmet cautions that this solution is not easy, and the alternative narrative may take years to replace the dysfunctional mass psychosis.

There are other topics Astin-Gregory and Desmet discuss but I chose to highlight those I found most significant in this essay. The live conversational interview format does have its limitations: it can be quite unstructured and meandering, and viewers may wish it be limited to a specific Q&A format. There is much Astin-Gregory could have asked Desmet, such as how children and young people living under mass formation conditions might be taught to be more critical of propaganda and to question what they are told.

If there is anything positive to take away from the interview, it is that societies dependent on mass formation and the propaganda that sustains it do not last very long, as they become more and more self-deluded and divorced from reality, and end up destroying themselves. What follows from that though, neither Astin-Gregory nor Desmet can say.

There is much in the interview that can be criticised: in particular Astin-Gregory and Desmet do not cover the role of capitalist ideology in creating dysfunctional societies that prioritise self-interest and a shallow concept of individualism over Enlightenment values about the place of individuals in society and the nature of freedom in society. The role of class, hierarchy and religion in separating individuals and pitting them against one another (so they can be more easily dominated by small political elites) in creating the conditions for mass formation psychosis is ignored. Ultimately what Desmet has identified might actually be a backward explanation of the real problem: that our political elites are using divide-and-rule strategies, such as targeting grassroots organisations, weakening and breaking them up, using other methods and structures (such as behavioural psychology and its tools) to keep individuals atomised without a sense of belonging and purpose, and channelling their frustrations into scapegoating vulnerable minorities, to keep us all in a state in which our fears and emotions can be exploited to control us.

Watership Down: exploring political freedom in the form of a foundation myth

Martin Rosen, John Hubley, “Watership Down” (1978)

A vivid and beautifully presented tale, this British film portrays what might be a foundation myth of an imaginary community of rabbits living in Watership Down in southern England. The community is founded by a small group of bunnies that break away from a warren in Sandleford when one of their number, Fiver (who has the gift of foresight), foresees a terrible disaster that could wipe out their people. Fiver (Richard Briers) and his older brother Hazel (John Hurt) beg their leader to take them all to safety but the leader refuses to listen to them and orders his lieutenant, Captain Holly (John Bennett), to arrest them. Fiver, Hazel and their friend Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) lead a small breakaway group and flee through the woods to escape Captain Holly’s forces, on the way passing a sign (which they would not have been able to read, less understand) that a residential development by humans is being constructed in their area.

The group survives many ordeals but unfortunately the only doe among them is taken by a hawk. The young rabbits take shelter with another community of rabbits but Fiver learns that these rabbits are being fattened for food by humans. Leaving these other rabbits, the group continues its journey until the rabbits sight the hill known as Watership Down in the distance and Fiver recognises it as the place of salvation in his earlier visions. (In the meantime their original community at Sandleford has been destroyed by humans and only Captain Holly has been able to escape and reach them to tell the sorry story.) They all reach Watership Down where they meet an injured seagull, Kehaar (Zero Mostel), who agrees to help them find does so they can found a new community.

The rest of the film follows the new Watership Down community in finding young does: after one failed attempt to free some does from a farm, the rabbits are led by Kehaar to another warren community ruled by oppressive tyrant General Woundwort. Bigwig infiltrates the community and is made an officer by Woundwort; in this capacity, Bigwig persuades several does and a few bucks to join him and move to Watership Down. The escapees manage to flee to Watership Down with Kehaar’s help but Woundwort and his forces manage to track them down and besiege the Watership Down community. While Bigwig manages to hold Woundwort at bay, Hazel and a couple of escapees entice a dog from the farm where they had previously tried to free some does to follow them back to Watership Down to confront Woundwort (Harry Andrews).

The film moves briskly with some gaps in the narrative, including one at the very climax of the film from which one has to deduce that things work out well for Watership Down – especially as the film jumps a few years into the future to reveal Hazel in his old age. The leaps in plot are unfortunate as much information that could reveal something of the personalities of Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig and Kehaar is lost and viewers have to make quite major assumptions to make sense of the film. The plot is otherwise highly absorbing and intense with many layers of meaning, and young children who watch the film will learn quite a few lessons about loyalty and camaraderie, courage under tremendous stress and pressure, resilience and self-sacrifice. Creatures that are the very symbols of vulnerability and fragility demonstrate enormous bravery when they are most afraid, and lay down their lives and freedom not only to help their own but to help and heal outsiders like Kehaar and to rescue other animals suffering from enslavement.

In its presentation as a foundation myth, following a creation story explaining how rabbits came to be and why they have so many enemies, and concluding with the death of Hazel and his entry into the afterlife to join the Rabbit Creator God, “Watership Down” can be viewed as a survey of religion and society, and of how societies use stories and legends to create and sustain their own identities and pass on significant values and morals to their young. The film’s visuals are rich with detailed English rural backgrounds painted in watercolour though the main characters are rather roughly drawn and lack much individuality. The cast voicing the animals are perhaps rather too mature and younger 20-something actors would have been more appropriate.

Despite the film having originally received a rating from British censors suggesting that it is suitable for young viewers, it is perhaps better seen by older children and teenagers as it is actually a complex and layered film about politics and in particular about choosing between political freedom and material security.

Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Sidney Lumet): a pedestrian treatment of a murder mystery

Sidney Lumet, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)

Initially beginning as a lavish drama set in an exotic 1930s Istanbul, Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” turns out to be a pedestrian treatment of the Agatha Christie novel. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), urged by his superiors to return to London straight away after having solved a case for the British Army in Transjordan, manages to secure a last-minute place on the famed Orient Express long-distance train with the help of his friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a director of the company that owns the railway line on which the train runs. Aside from Poirot, Bianchi and a Greek doctor (George Coulouris), thirteen other passengers have also boarded the train and these include Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), an American businessman who, on hearing that Poirot is aboard, tries to secure the detective’s services as a bodyguard as he, Ratchett, has been receiving death threats. Poirot senses something distasteful about Ratchett and turns down the American’s offer of $15,000 for his services. Later in the day, Poirot and Bianchi exchange compartments and Poirot ends up sleeping not far from Ratchett’s cabin. The train is trapped in a snowdrift while travelling through Yugoslavia and during the night Poirot is awakened a number of times by noises in the corridor. The following morning, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin from numerous stab wounds. Bianchi asks Poirot to solve the case before the train is freed from the snowdrift which might allow the murderer to escape before his/her identity is discovered.

From here on, Poirot interviews the passengers and discovers the connections they all have with one another and the murder victim. Ratchett is really Lanfranco Cassetti, a gangster who, five years ago, kidnapped and murdered the infant daughter Daisy of British Army colonel Hamish Armstrong and his pregnant American wife Sonia. On learning of Daisy’s death despite handing over the ransom money, Sonia miscarried her second child and died giving birth, and her grieving widower husband committed suicide. Their maid Paulette was suspected of working with Cassetti in kidnapping Daisy; to avoid being arrested and charged, Paulette killed herself. The train passengers turn out to be either relatives, personal friends or former domestic employees of the Armstrongs or related to Paulette. Having figured out all the passengers’ connections to the Armstrongs and Paulette, Poirot describes two possible solutions to Ratchett / Cassetti’s murder: the first solution can simply be that an unknown passenger on the train killed the gangster and managed to escape; the second solution is to link all thirteen passengers in the coach to the murder. Bianchi, now knowing how depraved Cassetti was, has to choose which solution the Yugoslavian police would prefer.

The plot runs smoothly and surely to its climax (though there are significant gaps within, forcing viewers to guess what happens during those gaps) with Finney’s strident and shouty Poirot coming close to hammed-up parody with an accent hard to understand and gesticulations conforming to the worst stereotypes about excitable French-speaking people. The cast of actors, all of whom were either film legends or popular actors at the time the film was made, perform barely adequately in the tiny amounts of time they are given to shine. The stand-out performances come from Anthony Perkins as Ratchett / Cassetti’s secretary Hector McQueen and Martin Balsam as Bianchi who is given the unenviable task of playing God in a climax that side-steps away from Poirot’s existential unease at burying the truth in order for vigilante justice to be served on an evil man who ruined so many lives and left others in psychological limbo. Vanessa Redgrave is wasted in a tiny role, Lauren Bacall is all brass as Harriett Hubbard and Ingrid Bergman lays on a thick Swedish accent while camping up as mousy missionary Anna Ohlsson. Sean Connery is perhaps rather too charismatic in his role as Colonel Armstrong’s friend and John Gielgud, for all his reputation as a formidable stage actor, struggles with small details (like holding the murder weapon correctly as he stabs Ratchett / Cassetti) as Edward Beddoes, butler to the odious gangster.

The film finishes up rather too tidily and there is nothing of the unease that Poirot feels at his universe being less than orderly and logical: a universe where people act according to the law and refrain from impulsive acts of retribution no matter how repulsive or evil the target victim is. The result is that viewers may end up not having much sympathy for Poirot at all, given that his character is more likely to irritate and alienate people than to gain their support. When Poirot’s worldview is challenged by Bianchi’s decision, viewers are likely to think Bianchi did the right thing even though in a sense justice has not really been served and the sweet taste of revenge and closure may be all too brief and sour consequences take place.

There is little sense of the film’s action taking place in a confined space, with all the tension and claustrophobia that could have been generated. What we end up with is a peek into what the world might have looked like for a privileged layer of American and European society between World Wars I and II: a world of luxury and decadence that would soon be swept away forever. But this peek reveals nothing of the arrogance and decay that would be responsible for the short-lived nature of this world.

The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill: a real health emergency smeared with a fantasy plot and intrigue

John Blair, “The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill” (2021)

Covering the incident in which Russian political / anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny collapsed in pain on a passenger jet while travelling from Tomsk to Moscow in August 2020, was taken to hospital in Omsk and later whisked to the Charite Hospital in Berlin where he was declared to have been poisoned with Novichok, this supposed documentary makes much of the poisoning story without offering any actual first-hand evidence supporting it. Interviews with figures associated with Navalny – his wife Julia and Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza feature prominently – and speculation over the identities of the FSB spies who apparently have been following Navalny over past several years and who must have done the dastardly deed pad out a narrative about Navalny’s rise to popularity through social media, the threat his popularity poses to Russian President Vladimir Putin and how Putin has dealt with figures who oppose his government and leadership.

With producer Marcel Theroux also narrating the supposed plot against Navalny and its details off-screen, the documentary’s presentation is po-faced and fails to note Putin’s sarcasm when the politician observes publicly that if the FSB had really tried to kill Navalny, its agents would have finished the job properly. It seems also that the producers, the interviewees and other sources relied on, such as the notorious Bellingcat investigators, cannot see how idiotic the notion of poisoning Navalny’s underwear with Novichok is: how would the FSB agents have been able to come anywhere near Navalny’s wardrobe when the activist is surrounded by aides and how can the agents know that Navalny would be using the underpants without washing them first, given that Novichok degrades in water?

The documentary also makes much of Navalny’s career as a political and anti-corruption activist on social media over the past 15 years but omits more than it admits: his appeal to anti-immigration and other fascist elements in the Russian population; the charges of embezzlement against him for stealing timber from a state-owned company in Kirov Oblast and misusing money from Yves Rocher for which he was put under home detention; and the fact that his popularity among the Russian voting public, as measured by polls, has never been higher than 2%.

The film mentions Navalny’s attempt to accuse Putin of owning a lavish palace in the Black Sea region in a video after his arrest and imprisonment when the activist returned to Russia from Germany in earky 2021. The accusation fell apart when reporters visited the palace and discovered it was a five-star hotel owned by Russian energy billionaire Arkady Rotenberg: the hotel was undergoing renovations at the time.

Nowhere in the documentary are there any interviews with or reports from the doctors who treated Navalny in Omsk, the paramedics who took him to the hospital or the airline crew and passengers on the jet where Navalny fell ill. The police who might have investigated the incident initially are also absent. Mention of the water bottle that was supposed to have contained the Novichok initially is given short shrift.

Humourless as well as being completely immersed in a fantasy about an activist who is actually not popular with the voting public in Russia, let alone be an opposition politician, this film offers nothing that informs viewers about what actually happened to Navalny in August 2020, that they would not already know from reading mainstream news media.

The World Is Not Enough: this film is just not enough

Michael Apted, “The World Is Not Enough” (1999)

Sent to protect a wealthy oil heiress after her father is killed by explosives in money delivered to him at MI6 headquarters in London, super-spy James Bond finds himself embroiled in yet another humdrum series of incidents that take him back and forth between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Istanbul, and which among other things keep drenching him in water or throw him into huge underground mazes that end up being destroyed by bomb explosions. Oh, and of course there are the obligatory chases, whether in speedboats, on skis or by a helicopter carrying an aerial saw for trimming trees. The original twist (long overdue in the film series, actually) is that one of the villains turns out to be a classic Bond girl supposedly in harm’s way from the other villain. Such is the film “The World Is Not Enough”, for the most part a highly derivative flick plundering some of the earlier JB films like “From Russia With Love” and the original Ian Fleming novels like “Casino Royale” for inspiration. Not only is the action predictable and the plot lacking in freshness and originality but even small details in the plot reveal either laziness or an appalling lack of general knowledge on the part of the scriptwriters and the rest of the film production crew. Do people not realise that since the early 1990s Azerbaijan has been primarily a Muslim country?

Anyway, once Bond (Pierce Brosnan) has been tasked with protecting Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), the unfortunate daughter of the slain oil billionaire Robert King, he flies out to Azerbaijan where she is overseeing the construction of an oil pipeline that will go from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan and Turkey to Europe, bypassing Russia and the Black Sea. Bond and Elektra King narrowly escape being killed by a hit squad so Bond contacts Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane), a former Russian Mafia boss / current casino owner, to get information about the hit squad; at Zukovsky’s casino, he unexpectedly meets King again. King loses $1 million at the casino and this makes Bond suspicious of her behaviour – but he eventually ends up seducing her anyway.

Under the guise of a Russian nuclear scientist, Bond later travels to a Russian ICBM base in Kazakhstan where he meets US nuclear scientist Dr Christmas Jones (a badly miscast Denise Richards) and comes across the former KGB agent now turned terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle) who had earlier sent the money laced with explosives to Robert King. Renard steals a bomb from the ICBM base and escapes, leaving everyone else there to die in the inevitable explosions but Bond and Jones get out in the nick of time.

After more shenanigans, in which Bond and Jones again narrowly escape with their lives from an explosion and King kidnaps Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) as part of a revenge scheme (because M had advised her father against paying ransom money to Renard after Renard had kidnapped King), Bond learns that King and Renard are working together to set off a nuclear meltdown that would destroy Istanbul and irradiate Russian oil pipelines in the Bosporus; Europe would then become dependent on King’s oil pipeline and King would reap enormous profits in manipulating oil supplies. Jones is captured by Renard who takes her on board a submarine captained by Zukovsky’s nephew and Bond is subjected to garrotting by King. Bond’s dilemma is how to escape in a limited amount of time to rescue Jones and also rescue M who is being held prisoner in a watch-tower.

The poor script and Apted’s lack of experience in directing action thriller films result in a badly made film with overly long and implausible chase sequences, and equally unconvincing escapes from impossible situations. The actors just manage to get by in their respective roles: Richards especially has the unenviable job of making her nuclear scientist role look credible, the character itself lacking a backstory that might justify the actor’s casting. It may be though that with Brosnan having settled on a Bond persona that is an odd mix of pretty-boy seducer / New Age sensitive / cold-hearted killer and not quite getting it right, the film has to settle for a cast of characters that make his Bond look good and so the characters are either comic or utterly bizarre. The usually good Carlyle is wasted as the villain Renard who can feel no pain and Marceau’s character becomes sillier and more unbelievable as the spoilt rich kid who throws in her lot with the crooks because her John-Paul-Getty styled Daddy wouldn’t cough up the ransom money.

This film about shifting energy politics and the ructions it can cause in geopolitics and even personal loyalties – not to mention how past decisions and actions can have devastating blowback effects as M, not for the first or last time, discovers for herself and for the King family – could have been a thoughtful if perhaps not exciting work under Apted’s direction. It ends up being buried under a puerile script crammed with character stereotypes and plot elements that have been overused in other films within and outside the James Bond film series. In such films, audiences cannot fail but notice other details that reveal a woeful lack of research and general knowledge.

Tomorrow Never Dies: satire on the power and influence of media trapped in a formula that never dies

Roger Spottiswoode, “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997)

The second of four films that Irish actor Pierce Brosnan starred in as British wonder spy James Bond for EON Productions, “Tomorrow Never Dies” is competent enough but after accounting for the JB film formula’s requirements of megalomaniac villain, a super-violent henchman, two overlong chase sequences, two or even three flings with attractive women, product positioning galore and a convoluted plot set in various exotic locales that culminates in a mushroom-cloud explosion in the villain’s underground labyrinthine hide-out, the film has very little to commend it. Viewers can almost see the film going through a check-list of required plot detours and comedy mini-sketches to flog some life into a narrative about the power and influence of global media corporations and how they (and by implication, other private mega-companies) can deploy that power to change world politics and set international relations on new and dangerous courses.

In this film, the second made after the end of the Cold War, China has become a significant protagonist for Western intelligence agencies and MI6 especially to deal with. Global media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) plans to exploit the tensions between China and the West by using an encoder obtained online at a black market bazaar in Russia by his employee Henry Gupta to send a British frigate off-course into Vietnamese maritime territory in the South China Sea where it is ambushed and sunk by his own stealth (ie off-radar) ship which also steals a missile from the frigate. At the same time, the stealth ship brings down a Chinese fighter jet and uses Chinese ammunition to kill off the frigate’s crew. Carver’s media organisations broadcast the news about the crisis the sinking of the frigate has caused and M (Judi Dench) becomes suspicious. She sends Bond to investigate the Carver media empire because she knows that Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) is an old flame of Bond’s.

Bond travels to Hamburg to seduce Paris and get information out of her to retrieve the stolen encoder. After the requisite violent encounters with various of Carver’s thugs and the seduction, Bond obtains the information and successfully infiltrates Carver’s newspaper printing press and recovers the encoder. While he is gone however, Paris is killed by one of Carver’s henchmen. The thug also tries to kill Bond but Bond escapes in a prolonged car chase through a car park with the encoder intact.

Examining the encoder at a US airforce base in Okinawa, Bond learns it has been tampered with and goes to investigate the sunken frigate where he meets Colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese spy who is investigating the shootdown of the fighter jet and the theft of its ammunition. The two are captured by Carver’s No 1 henchman Stamper (Gotz Otto) and held prisoner in Carver’s tower in Saigon – erm, has no-one told the film-makers the city is no longer called Saigon? – but they escape by rappelling down the side of the tower and breaking into a lower floor and then evade Carver’s thugs through the streets of Saigon on a motorcycle. Deciding to work together, Bond and Wai notify their respective governments of Carver’s plans to push their countries into war, from which Carver’s media conglomerate will profit by obtaining exclusive broadcasting rights in China.

From then on the film grinds its way to the showdown between Bond and Carver amid the requisite capture and rescue of the Bond girlfriend, confronting No 1 henchman, blowing up the hide-out and romancing the girlfriend among the wreckage – which is presumably leaking radiation and toxic chemicals but don’t let those facts spoil the ending. Along the way the cast of actors have done the best they could with their scripts – Brosnan works at balancing his New-Age sensitive pretty boy persona with the tough gritty spy character and Yeoh basically updates the Bond girl stereotype with her HK martial arts action film persona. Pryce hams up his scenes as Carver where possible and Hatcher does well with her minimal approach to playing the embittered trophy wife. The “Saigon” scenes (actually filmed in Bangkok) probably do no justice to Ho Chi Minh City in the late 1990s and might actually be seen as racist in future years, otherwise the Asian locations in the film’s second half are among the better features along with the carpark car chase and the motorcycle chase of a pedestrian film in thrall to an overused and tired script formula.

Live and Let Die: as it says, live and let this film die

Guy Hamilton, “Live and Let Die” (1973)

Cashing in on the blaxploitation film genre that was popular in the early 1970s, this instalment in the James Bond film series has not aged well and abounds in racist and sexist stereotypes. “Live and Let Die” is the first of seven films to feature Roger Moore as the British super-spy and his portrayal is light-hearted and mild compared to predecessor Sean Connery. Unfortunately the shallow use of themes associated with blaxploitation films, crammed into the usual James Bond film formula emphasising gimmicky technology, prolonged chases and bizarre criminals, makes Moore’s debut film one of the more forgettable episodes in the JB movie series, notable mainly as a snapshot of pop culture trends in a particular decade of the 20th century.

Bond is sent to the US to investigate the mysterious deaths of three MI6 spies in New Orleans, New York and the tiny Caribbean nation San Monique in the space of 24 hours, all of whom were monitoring the activities of San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). Bond’s snooping leads him to Harlem mob boss Mr Big, who runs the Fillet of Soul chain of restaurants, and the boss’s assistant Solitaire (Jane Seymour), a tarot reader with the power of second sight. Mr Big tries to get Bond killed but Bond escapes and travels to San Monique where he meets with local CIA agent Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) there. After a few hair-raiding incidents, Bond suspects Carver of working for Kananga; Carver tries to escape but is killed by Kananga remotely. Bond later meets and seduces Solitaire but this means her clairvoyant abilities are lost along with her virginity. Her life now in danger from Kananga, Solitaire tags along after Bond. They escape to New Orleans but are captured by Mr Big who reveals himself as Kananga to Bond. The link between Mr Big and Kananga now becomes clear: Kananga is growing opium in poppy fields across San Monique, using voodoo to terrify his people and keep them poor and oppressed, and manufactures the opium into heroin which he then exports to the Fillet of Soul restaurants where it is given away for free to increase the number of addicts and at the same time run other heroin dealers and networks out of business. Once Kananga becomes the sole supplier of heroin, he will jack up prices to reap enormous profit at the expense of those he has enslaved to heroin.

From then on, the film dives into familiar JB territory of Bond narrowly escaping death from crocodiles by literally using the animals as stepping stones to freedom, a tedious speedboat chase through Louisiana’s bayous, Bond rescuing Solitaire from becoming a voodoo sacrifice and Bond’s final confrontation with Kananga in the dictator’s underground lair which results in Kananga’s outlandish demise. Along the way we meet a cast of odd characters, notably Kananga’s collection of henchmen like iron-fisted Tee Hee (Julius W Harris), Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and Whisper (James Ellroy Brown) and Louisiana sheriff J W Pepper (Clifton James) who embodies the worst stereotypes about Deep South racist redneck white people. (Odd that the lower classes, whether white or black, are being exploited for giggles.)

The use of blaxploitation motifs in an uncritical way, mostly for laughs, makes the film appear racist even if such motifs were not intended to be racist but satirical: instead of being a megalomaniac intent on taking over the world, Kananga is more content with ensnaring people into the clutches of heroin and exploiting them that way. Granted, Kananga’s ambitions are more convincing and possibly grounded in reality – in those days, Haitian presidents François Duvalier (1957 – 1971) and his son Jean-Claude (1971 – 1986) governed their nation as absolute or near-absolute rulers and used voodoo to foster a personality cult – but the nature of Kananga’s villainy tends rather to reinforce 1970s stereotypes about African-American involvement in drug crime and to demonise voodoo as a primitive cult obsessed with death and sacrifice. Furthermore, why should Kananga be happy being just another exploitive global drug lord while his white counterparts in other James Bond films are hellbent on holding governments and central banks to ransom?

Action sequences are overlong and boring, Bond’s seduction of Solitaire is frankly creepy and manipulative, and the cast of characters is flat. The actors do what they can to inject life into their characters but they all deserved a much better script. Probably the only decent highlights of the film are Jane Seymour’s ethereal beauty and sweet nature as Solitaire, and Yaphet Kotto’s sinister and tense Kananga.

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