Checkpoint: a polished fantasy exploring the purpose of existence

Jason Sheedy, “Checkpoint” (2021)

Here comes a 10-minute number that initially looks like a virtual reality game being played by several avatars of the same player over and over for some purpose. A prisoner (Brett Brooks) must battle his way out of his confining jail and complete a series of trials in order to claim his love Victoria. Each time he loses a trial, he is killed in the most gory way possible – in one trial he fails, his head explodes; in another, he is decapitated – and he finds himself back behind the gates of his prison. a little wiser after the last death experience. His new avatars pick up coins from the dead bodies of previous avatars.

With each completed trial, the action in the film speeds up, the tension escalates as the prisoner comes closer to his goal, though the coins he collects along the way – perhaps he needs them to pay his way into the dimension where he will claim his reward? – slow him down. Finally after so much effort and a trail of dead avatars in his wake, the prisoner makes his way to meet Victoria (Erin Ownbey), only to discover that she isn’t what he believed her to be, and that his reward is the beginning of another series of ordeals …

“Checkpoint” is a very smartly made film about an unlikely protagonist who, in most other films, would be the antagonist – the prisoner looks shady and villainous enough, and indeed Victoria tells him he was chosen to undergo the trials because he represents one of the seven classic deadly sins of Christian teaching – but in this short film becomes a character the audience roots for. By enduring so many deaths and completing the series of trials, the prisoner does demonstrate admirable qualities of patience, resilience and self-sacrifice. However the prisoner discovers that he is little more than a plaything for higher celestial beings using him and six other representatives of the Deadly Sins to test whether humanity deserves to live or not.

The special effects are very good and help give the film quite a polished and sophisticated look despite its restricted budget. Brooks’s acting is enough to give his prisoner something of a roguish quality while he runs around trying to avoid being shot and splattered all over the ground. The support cast is not given much to do and Ownbey’s character seems very one-dimensional. Very little background context – how did the prisoner agree to get involved in these trials in the first place? – is given in the film.

The film looks like a pilot for a television or movie series in which the prisoner and his fellow human guinea pigs are plunged into various scenarios where they must redeem themselves through upright behaviour and demonstrate that they and other humans deserve a second chance. The sense that these people are pawns of perhaps indifferent, even sadistic cosmic beings who enjoy playing, well, God is strong. Will the prisoner and the other six representatives of the Seven Deadly Sins willingly continue playing out Victoria’s games or will they rebel?

Everything Everywhere All at Once: wacky science fiction exploration of the nature of nihilism and existential angst

Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022)

True to its title, this wacky science fiction / fantasy / philosophy film dips into nearly every major genre of film known, all over the known cinematic universe, nearly all at once … the wonder with all its sub-plots and themes is that the film manages to be quite a coherent whole. Most people may find it difficult to follow though if you are comfortable with the idea of multi-universes existing all at once – with each and every one of us in this universe having doppelgängers in all the other universes existing in parallel dimensions living the lives we might have had, if we had made different decisions earlier in our lives – you will be able to follow and keep up with the sub-plots as they bleed into one another. Into this wild mix, directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert deliver a surprisingly profound message about the nature of the universe, the meaning of nihilism and how humans can find meaning and purpose in a universe that is indifferent to human existence and experience.

Chinese immigrant Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) struggles to keep her laundromat going despite the threat of the Internal Revenue Service to obtain a lien over the business after Wang tries to claim some rather suspect business expenses on her taxes. Life around Wang is falling into pieces: her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is trying to serve divorce papers on her; her father (James Hong) has just arrived from China under the impression the laundromat business is going well; and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is anxious for Wang to accept her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel). The family encapsulates many stereotypes about Chinese immigrant families and their behaviour in the US; in particular, Wang and her daughter have a complicated relationship rooted in Chinese custom, tradition and expectation colliding with current American values about individual freedoms and the belief in the individual right to pursue happiness and to reinvent oneself. Called to a meeting with IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn Wang’s life suddenly takes a different turn when Waymond’s personality changes and he reveals himself as Alpha Waymond from the Alpha universe, come to our universe in search of Wang to help him combat Jobu Topaki, formerly Alpha Joy. Alpha Joy was pushed by Alpha Evelyn, now deceased, to “verse jump” (accessing the skills, experiences and bodies of one’s doppelgängers in parallel universes after fulfilling certain rituals) too extensively; now Alpha Joy / Jobu Topaki has a splintered mind and experiences all universes all at once. She has now created a giant black hole called the “everything bagel” that now threatens to swallow up all the multi-universes ever created, including ours.

Acquiring “verse jumping” technology, Evelyn discovers other lives she could have had, including lives as a martial arts expert / film star (if she had obeyed her father and given up marrying Waymond), a teppanyaki chef, an opera star and Deirdre’s girlfriend. From all of these lives and others, Evelyn gains the powers she needs to defeat Jobu Topaki. She discovers that Jobu Topaki created the Everything Bagel not to destroy everything but to destroy herself – because having experienced everything every universe has to offer, and still encountering chaos, Jobu Topaki has come to believe that nothing matters and life is meaningless.

The film breathlessly jumps from one confounding scenario to another, illustrating the chaos and apparent lack of structure, meaning or continuity from one universe to the next in a nihilistic meta-universe – in one universe, the Wangs are about to lose their laundromat, in another Alpha Waymond dies – but thanks to the energy and zest with which Yeoh, Quan and the cast play their roles, and to clever writing and editing, the film hangs together much better than might be expected. The script-writers use small details from one universe and blow them up into something more important in another universe so despite the multiplicity of universes, there are commonalities that stitch the whole tapestry of universes together. Security guards in one universe become Jobu Topaki’s minions in another and various laundromat customers turn up as singers or fighters in other universes. Bag packs and small dogs become kung fu weapons in different universes! Yeoh and Quan are brilliant in the ways they transition from one role to another as the Wangs jump from one universe to another – though it must be said that many of Evelyn Wang’s different doppelgängers mirror Michelle Yeoh’s real-life experiences as an actor initially specialising in martial arts / action thriller films and then as a global film celebrity. The two main stars are ably supported by a capable cast that includes Jamie Lee Curtis in a comic turn as IRS auditor Deirdre.

In addition to exploring nihilism and existential angst, the film can also be read as the experience of an immigrant family under internal and external stress, and how it copes with such stress: in this reading, the film is not so successful at explaining how the Wangs are eventually able to turn their lives around financially and keep their laundromat business and marriage intact. The film can have a third reading as a work about depression, its characteristics and how families might cope and deal with depression and develop the tools for overcoming or moderating it. The answers for dealing with depression and nihilism may be trite and banal – Waymond Wang implores Evelyn and others around him to be kind to one another and to connect with each other – and some viewers may find the resolution of Evelyn’s conflict with Jobu Topaki rather underwhelming, as Evelyn and Joy come to an understanding and reconciliation: Evelyn accepts that she has been pressuring Joy too much to be what Evelyn herself failed to be and that Joy needs her own space.

Perhaps the film tries too hard to be everything everywhere all at once: I’d have liked to have seen something in the film’s plot suggesting that the Wangs come to some realisation that they need help in managing their laundromat business and that the story begun in “Everything Everywhere …” might be continued in a sequel, in which the multi-universes come under attack from a second meta-universe outside them all, and the Wangs are called upon again to marshal all the forces of the multi-universes against the new threat.

Dealing with plot inconsistencies as well as pests in “Alien: Night Shift”

Aidan Michael Brezonick, “Alien: Night Shift” (2019; extended version 2020)

Not one of the better films out of the batch of six made in 2019 to herald the 40th anniversary of the Alien film series, this short flick does have its moody and atmospheric moments. At least the idea of setting it in a colony store where a new employee learns she has to deal with more than just rats and cockroaches as pests is a good one. Sometimes big problems that can threaten an entire colony’s operation can start in places that everyone from the most senior leaders down ignores because the people employed in those places are at the bottom of the social and political hierarchy.

On a routine supply operation to a mining colony on exomoon LV-422 (presumably a sister moon to LV-426), supply-ship crew member Welles (T K Richardson) finds his colleague Harper (Tanner Rittenhouse) who has been missing for the past 24 hours and is looking drunk and dishevelled. Welles brings him into the colony store where senior store employee Springer (Christopher Murray) and new recruit Rolly (Amber Gaston) are working the night shift. Harper’s condition worsens rapidly, he starts vomiting and convulsing, and before you know it … well, this is an Alien film short so you know what happens next. Except that your mind has to fill in most of the details because the film quickly focuses on Welles shooting wildly at close range, fatally wounding Springer and managing to smash all the lights so the entire store is plunged into near-darkness.

Rolly tries to help Springer while Welles quickly scoots out of the colony store. With Springer gone, Rolly hunts down the Alien hiding in amongst the supplies. She finds it and disposes of it – but any feeling of triumph she might have is short-lived as she hears the sounds of panic, shouting and deathly chittering noises from outside the store.

The film is no great advance on the themes and motifs of “Alien” and might actually fill in as a sub-plot for James Cameron’s “Aliens” though the action takes place in a different colony. The acting is not exceptional and the characters are no more than stereotypes. The plot has some inconsistencies that render the film weak: for one thing, if Welles is aiming his gun at the Alien, why does he hit everything else including Springer but the Alien?

In a new extended version, the incident in the colony store is recast in the framework of an interview by investigators hired by mega-corporation Weyland-Yutani interrogating Welles as to what happened. Welles is clearly conflicted and ashamed over his actions, especially in leaving Rolly to cope with the Alien on her own. While they link the incident to the strange mystery of the spaceship Nostromo, in which an entire crew (save one) perished, the investigators appear either clueless or limited by the scope of their duties and training to recognise the seriousness of the LV-422 incident and the threat it poses to all of Weyland-Yutani’s mining colonies on the exomoon. Fans of the original Alien film series will not find much in this extended film that is new as it mainly serves to confirm that Weyland-Yutani is a typically bureaucratic organisation where people work to rule and are not motivated to help their fellow human beings or do more than their job descriptions require them to do.

As a group the six Alien shorts are faithful to most aspects of the original Ridley Scott film – all films feature working class characters in gritty industrial-type settings – but only a few of them transcend the original film in their themes or genre type.

A good setting and cast but weak growth in “Alien: Harvest”

Benjamin Howdeshell, “Alien: Harvest” (2019)

It had stunning CGI visuals, a scary setting in a failing spaceship, a willing cast and a lot of tension … so what went wrong in “Alien: Harvest”? Of the six short films made in 2019 in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the cinema release of Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, “… Harvest” has the least original plot and adds nothing new or refreshing to the mystique and mythology surrounding the Alien film franchise. On a damaged space harvester ship far out in the cosmos, four survivors of a disaster try to find their way to an escape pod using a motion sensor while being pursued by a giant Xenomorph. Too late three of them discover that their guide Mari (Agnes Albright) doesn’t necessarily have their best interests at heart.

The flashing lights, the claustrophobic network of corridors and the industrial look of the harvester’s interiors are faithful to “Alien” and replicate that film’s paranoia, tension and rising horror as the monster cuts down any and all humans who stray into its path. Even androids get short shrift from the monster. At the very end, the very pregnant Hannah starts having labour pains. Not to worry, the Alien has the problem of caring for Hannah’s baby all sorted out already!

The conclusion really doesn’t make sense … the symbolism behind it is unnecessary, even sadistic. How on earth the Alien and its kind can presume to know more about human physiology perhaps more than their own might have most of us scratching our heads. Apart from this, the characters are little more than stereotypes that viewers of the Alien full-length films are familiar with.

Of the six films made, “… Harvest” is the weakest of the lot: it relies too much on viewers being familiar with the original Ridley Scott film and does not create its own viable branch that could grow into a feature-length movie tree.

Haunted (green) house horror plot with a twist in “Alien: Specimen”

Kelsey Taylor, “Alien: Specimen” (2019)

A suspenseful little short, more haunted-house horror than sci-fi, “… Specimen” gets points from me for using its setting, cinematography and especially the use of lighting, darkness, shadows and their contrasts in creating tension and drama, and extracting the plot’s full potential for terror. The action takes place in a space colony’s greenhouse where botanist Julie (Jolene Anderson) is working the night shift with guard dog Maggie (Goose) for company. Inevitably something goes bump, Maggie starts barking furiously and the greenhouse suddenly closes all egress and shuts down the power, effectively locking Julie and Maggie in with … whatever the strange chittering thing is that escaped cargo storage. While Julie manages to get some of the lights back on with a generator, Maggie races off ahead to find the intruder. Julie soon follows in pursuit, armed with whatever gardening tools she has at hand.

Anderson plays her part well as the no-nonsense botanist who (wisely) hits out and bashes something, and then might decide to ask questions later. Goose does well too, to the extent that a few viewers might find themselves shedding a tear or two when Maggie meets a dreadful fate. There is a twist at the end of the story which deflates the entire plot and leaves Anderson’s character Julie appearing unconvincing if not even a little cold-blooded herself.

The main problem with the film is that it’s perhaps a bit too long and needs to come to the point more quickly. Shots of Julie running around in the dark with her torch, finding strange messes and items knocked over, while automated watering systems periodically send out plumes of spray become a bit tedious. Yes, we understand Julie is working in an area resembling a huge dark labyrinth full of secret hideouts where an Alien might lurk.

The CGI design of the Alien is very disappointing with the thing resembling a schnitzel even before it meets the sharp end of a shovel. Curiously the shovel doesn’t disintegrate into sizzling molten metal. When Julie uses the shovel for something equally disturbing again, I start to wonder who or what is the real Alien … at least the Alien acts according to its nature.

Too many Alien references contained in “Alien: Containment”

Chris Reading, “Alien: Containment” (2019)

For me, this nine-minute work was a rushed piece that crammed perhaps too many references to Ridley Scott’s original “Alien” and ended up suffering for it. Four survivors of a terrible catastrophe onboard a space station race away in their escape pod while the station itself disintegrates. The four try to piece together exactly what the contagion was on the space station that spread faster than you can say “plague” and which left a bloody swathe that has traumatised three of the four survivors, the fourth being in a coma. The three start to doubt one another and each suspects one of his or her fellows to be carrying the contagion. The comatose man is scanned with an instrument and found to be uninfected. While pilot Ward (Gaia Weiss) and scientist Albrecht (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) are confused, the third conscious passenger Nass (Theo Barklem-Biggs), on the verge of hysteria, throws accusations, makes threats, attacks Ward and nearly stabs her… and then sickens rapidly. He hits the floor, coughs up blood, convulses and … well, you know the rest.

From here on the film repeats much of “Alien” in miniature as the newborn Xenomorph scuttles around the escape pod, Ward tries desperately to help Nass and then defend herself, and Albrecht does a treacherous turn in locking Ward in the control room with the Xenomorph and trying to save herself. At the same time the escape pod is picked up by a larger spaceship and Ward faces the problem of trying to alert the crew on that ship that they must not open the escape pod lest they allow the Xenomorph to run amok in the spaceship and repeat the catastrophe from the space station.

While the three actors do their best with what they’re given – Barklem-Biggs overacts his hysterical role, Ward plays a flat second-rate version of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley without the heroism or compassion, and Duncan-Brewster gets little to do other than echo Ian Holm’s Ash (with viewers not know if she’s human or android) – they are unable in the time available to them to flesh out their characters as more than cardboard cut-out stereotypes. The plot is too rushed and everything happens too quickly. Viewers might well end up just as traumatised by the speed at coincidences occur: just as Nass goes fully rogue, the Alien within him decides it wants shot of his madness – and then the escape pod makes contact with a spaceship at last!

The sets where all the action whooshes by as fast as the Alien itself are well made and the early animation showing the space station, in black silhouette against the background of a giant planet, breaking up while the escape pod flees is incredible to watch with all its minimal starkness and beauty. If director Chris Reading had been given a bigger budget to make a longer film tribute, the plot could have been stretched out to allow for character development and depth, and details about characters and the events that happened on the space station could have been introduced to make the plot and its conclusion more realistic. Ward’s self-sacrifice would have been more tragic and heart-breaking.

A darkly comic and tender story of love and companionship in “Alien: Alone”

Noah Miller, “Alien: Alone” (2019)

After seeing all six short films made in 2019 to mark the 40th anniversary of the cinematic release of Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, I must admit they’re not all good and most of them don’t stray very far from the original slasher flick / sci-fi horror genre narrative. Miller’s contribution, the last of the six, comes as a breath of fresh air: taking as its inspiration the original film’s android science officer Ash and that android’s fascination with the Alien to the exclusion of all else, including the safety of the humans on board the Nostromo, “Alien: Alone” dives into a darkly twisted tale of two lost and abandoned beings who find in each other companionship and care. With both facing certain death, one of them determines to save the other and prolong its life – and in so doing, leave a legacy with the other. It so happens that these beings who find friendship and comfort are an android and an Alien.

Hope (Taylor Lyons) is the remaining crew member on board the commercial transport vessel the Otranto. The Otranto is slowly breaking down and Hope spends her dreary days repairing various parts of the vessel and hoping beyond hope that (as her Captain had tolder her) she would be rescued by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. We figure out very early that Hope is an android when she informs us (in voiceover) that she has counted every rivet in the ship and arrived at a figure of over 28,000. After a fire emergency on the ship reduces the power available so that a section of the ship that hitherto banned access to Hope is now open, Hope walks in and is informed by the ship’s information systems that a life-form in cryogenic deep freeze is ready for resuscitation. Hope revives the life-form which turns out to be the face-hugger form of the Alien. As you’d expect the face-hugger attacks Hope but finds no purchase on the android. At first the two have something of a stand-off but eventually they warm to each other and enjoy each other’s company. Gradually though the face-hugger begins to starve to death and Hope herself realises her own body is breaking down and dying. She decides then and there to save the face-hugger and enable it to complete its life-cycle by powering up the Otranto and taking it somewhere in the vast universe where it is likely to come in contact with a ship of unsuspecting life-forms.

At least until this point, the short film is actually a very touching treatment of loneliness and isolation, and perhaps of the madness that can afflict even androids as a result of extreme isolation. The distress that Hope experiences once she realises she is dying and her companion is dying as well is very palpable, and viewers can feel pity for them both. Lyons does good work as Hope, at once a sensitive being for whom viewers can feel some sympathy … and a ruthless android determined to find a host for her pet. Close-ups of Lyons’ face along with a voiceover from Martha Vincent enable this connection between the character and audiences. Viewers might do well to consider though that as an android, Hope may not be able to override her programming and the objective laid down in her brain circuits: that she exists solely to help bring back Alien specimens to Earth or wherever for Weyland-Yutani Corporation to study and use for its own purposes. Had Miller considered this aspect of Hope, he might have (within the limits of his budget) pursued and expanded on it further in the plot, with the result that perhaps Hope becomes a more complicated character wrestling with her programming and trying to overcome it.

After Hope makes her decision, the tone of the film changes quickly: it becomes a more conventional sci-fi horror flick as the Otranto makes contact with another ship and that ship’s human pilot (played by James Paxton, son of Bill Paxton who played US Colonial Marine Hudson in James Cameron’s “Aliens”) stumbles across Hope and her pet. In the film’s final scene, which is open-ended, Hope and her pet regard each other with new eyes, as it were, and just at the very point when the film cuts out and the final credits start rolling, viewers realise anything and everything could happen. Does Hope die or is somehow able to survive? Does the Alien remember what Hope has done for it? Is the Alien even capable of experiencing a state akin to human emotions and feelings such as pity and gratitude?

While the film’s denouement and conclusion may be disappointing after its build-up, and the sets used in the film are cheap-looking – 20th Century Fox did allocate a small production budget for it – its premise and ideas, all inspired by the original “Alien” film, constitute an original and intriguing development that raises questions about love and companionship, and how a love bond can be so strong that it threatens the lives of others. It calls into question also the nature of androids vis-a-vis humans and whether androids might be worthy of being considered human if they can experience emotion and feeling.

Worker solidarity to save the day and a mining colony in “Alien: Ore”

Kailey and Sam Spear, “Alien: Ore” (2019)

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror film “Alien”, the film production company 20th Century Fox commissioned six short films to capture the spirit of the original film. Twin sister film-makers Kailey and Sam Spear brought out this work that runs just short of eleven minutes and which (like the original film) focuses on ordinary working people forced to defend themselves with the meagre tools they have when faced with the hideous alien menace.

Lorraine Hawkes (Mikela Jay) goes down into a mine along with her fellow miners to investigate the disappearance of a work colleague. They quickly discover their colleague’s remains along with the remnants of opened alien eggs and realise that a group of aliens has infested the mine. While mine supervisor Hanks (Tara Pratt), following the miners’ movements on her screen, dithers over whether to abandon the miners to their fate or not, one of the aliens starts picking off the miners and those fortunate enough to survive the sudden attack escape back into the elevator. Lorraine though is determined not to allow the aliens to escape out of the mine and threaten the mining colony (where she is raising her grandchild) so she decides to go back down to the mine to stop the aliens’ advance. Her fellow miners follow her in an act of solidarity.

With most of the action occurring in claustrophobic settings – the miners in their crowded elevator or in a tunnel and Hanks in a bunker-like control room – the film makes good use of the restrictive, cramped conditions the characters are forced to work in to create a sense of rising horror and panic. The dim conditions in the mine help obscure the CGI animation used to create the alien and much of what we see of the alien is actually in silhouette. The actors playing the miners look unglamorous and very sweaty in the hot underground mine.

In such a short film with a basic story, a fairly large cast of actors but a small budget, character development is very limited: by deciding to put the colony’s welfare above her own safety and life, Lorraine emerges as a leader among the miners. Hanks’ apparent indecision (which may mask a more sinister agenda to leave the miners to their fate and capture the alien for the mining company – it’s probably a subsidiary of Weyland Yutani Corporation) sets her up as antagonist to Lorraine’s heroine though the women do not actually confront each other. The film deliberately opts for an open ending: we never find out if Lorraine and the miners succeed in driving back the aliens and avenging their dead colleague.

Ordinary working people, abandoned to their own inadequate technology and forced to fight a fierce, inhuman enemy, prepare to sacrifice themselves for their community with grit, when those who should support them desert them instead: this theme is true to the spirit of the original “Alien” film, in which human intelligence, ingenuity and dogged determination do more than technology to bring down a dangerous enemy. A bigger budget, a more developed and lengthier plot, and better character development than reliance on flat stereotyped characters could make this short film an intriguing and intelligent addition to the “Alien” film franchise.

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 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.

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