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.

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.

Vampires in Greek Myth: an introduction to a universal cultural phenomenon through the Ancient Greek worldview

Dr Garrett Ryan, “Vampires in Greek Myth” (Told In Stone, 30 October 2021)

Casting our fears regarding death and women who might be less than ideal mothers or loving wives and partners by personifying them as bloodthirsty monsters – in other words, vampires or vampire equivalents – seems to be a universal practice across all human cultures. Post-Classical Greek culture certainly believed in vampire-like beings but may have borrowed the concept from Slavs who migrated into the Balkans during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. Did the Greeks of Classical times also believe in vampires? Dr Ryan’s short film tutorial shows the ancient Greeks certainly did believe in bloodthirsty female demons or ghosts that preyed upon susceptible young men with the intent to drain them of their blood and vitality. Structured around two entertaining tales – one taken from Philostratus’s biography “Life of Apollonius of Tyana” in which Apollonius warns his student Menippus that the younger man’s new girlfriend is something of a manhunter, the other being The Bride of Corinth – the film discusses the lamia, the stryx and the empousa. All three are described in their lurid monstrosity: the lamia appears to humans as a beautiful woman in its upper body but its lower body having the form of a snake; the strix is a foul-smelling nocturnal bat monster with a human head and a penchant for attacking sleeping children through open windows; and the empousa is a shapeshifting ghost who goes after young men.

While the film is certainly entertaining and the artwork featured is rich and gorgeous, there isn’t much information about the place of these monsters in Greek mythology: how they came to be, what their relation might have been to the Olympians, the Titans or other beings that populated the ancient Greek imagination, and what importance they held for the people who feared them. What remedies did ordinary people believe in to ward off these creatures and what important cultural values or morals were emphasised in the stories people told and passed on to others about these creatures? The lessons one could take from the tale of Apollonius and Menippus, and the story of the Bride of Corinth might include warnings that romantic love or lust is not a good basis for a long-lasting relationship and that marriage is much more than a union of two people.

The film is best viewed as an introduction to the ways in which ancient Greeks coped with and expressed the universal human fear and fascination with death, blood, menstruation and women’s ability to give birth, the connections among all of these – and how in both imagination and reality these connections can be explored by being turned into their polar opposites in the form of vampiric monsters.

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 Destruction of Laos: casting light on a shameful aspect of the Vietnam War

Carlton Meyer, “The Destruction of Laos” (Tales of the American Empire, 15 October 2021)

Many people know that the Vietnam War dragged Cambodia into its horrors – or rather, US State Secretary Henry Kissinger saw fit to drag Cambodia into the Vietnam War – but I confess to being unaware that Laos had also been dragged into the Vietnam War even though the fact that Cambodia was an unwilling participant made so by the US should have suggested to me that the US would treat Laos similarly. Here comes Carlton Meyer with his latest TofAE episode to cast light on a relatively little-known front of the Vietnam War: the US bombing of Laos. As Meyer notes, Laos in the early 1970s was a small country of some 3million yet the US saw fit to drop over 2 million tons of bombs in 580,000 bombing raids over 9 years from 1964 to 1973: that works out to one planeload of bombs being dropped onto Laos every 8 minutes! At the same time this was happening the US government denied it was bombing Laos or had US combat forces in the country.

After describing the scale of the bombing of Laos, Meyer goes on to detail how US forces and the CIA operated in the country. Combat forces worked as contractors for the CIA and trained and led Laotian and Chinese mercenaries in Laos. Many of these Americans supplemented their incomes by engaging in the opium trade. US denial of involvement in Laos meant that finding lost or missing US soldiers or pilots in the country was difficult or impossible, since that would force Washington to admit that the US did indeed have forces there.

Meyer rounds off his short documentary by explaining why the US invaded and brought the Vietnam War to Laos: the reason was to shut down the Ho Chi Minh supply trail that passed from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. Meyer explains how the US attempt to cut off the supply trail was bound to fail as the Vietcong in South Vietnam had support from the general public there and could obtain supplies from myriad, mostly local sources, not just from North Vietnam. Ultimately it was the determination of the Vietnamese to reunite as an independent nation, free from Western domination (whether in the form of French colonialism or US neocolonialism), that was the major factor in Vietnam’s victory.

Meyer enlivens his short video documentary with archived film, maps and snippets of old 1970s interviews including one with a US refugee worker dealing with displaced Laotians who relays what the refugees told him about the relentless nature of the bombing and the total destruction it caused. This interview with the refugee worker, which concludes the film, conveys the absolute horror of what amounted to virtual firebombing of the country. What Meyer details is indeed an absolutely shameful episode in US military history.

Meyer probably could have noted the continuing legacy of the US bombing campaign in Laos: about 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos did not explode on impact but remain in many parts of the country and continue to maim and kill Laotians, children in particular.

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