Monday, October 28, 2013

Them!

"You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility ...  I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." So says the android Ash in Alien, describing eponymous monster. The xenomorph is very much like an insect, and the idea is taken further in Aliens with the addition of the Queen and nest.

Bugs, the everyday creatures, are in many ways our superior; they breed faster and in much greater numbers. They can survive the loss of limbs, lift several times their own body weights, and endure much harsher environmental conditions than we can. They are survivors that know no fear or pity.

Them! (1954) strikes me as both predictably optimistic and unexpectedly grim. As one of the earlier giant, radioactive bug movies of the 1950s, it's less hokey than a lot of the movies that followed it, but looking back on it nearly sixty years later, there are some undeniably campy, silly, and implausible moments that date it. Yet, it contains some undeniably creepy ideas and is put together with better care and craft than one would expect, and it effectively plays on the social anxiety of its time: the unknown dangers of the Atomic Age.

New Mexico state police sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) investigates after a shellshocked little girl is found wandering alone in the desert, her family's trailer torn to pieces. She can say only one word: "Them." When other folks soon turn up dead, including Ben's partner, FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and the father-daughter science team of Drs. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon) join the case. Soon, it becomes apparent radiation from the testing of the Atomic Bomb has mutated a colony of ants into gigantic, dangerous proportions that if they spread and breed will pose a threat to the entire planet.

It's thirty minutes into Them! before we get a glimpse of the giant ants. Before then, we find evidence of their rampage - totaled cars, dead bodies, etc. - coupled with the inexplicable: no money stolen from the dead shop owner's cash register to suggest robbery, the only item stolen is sugar, and the high-pitched, inhuman shrieking that carries on the wind. We also get some nice visual reminders of how precarious man's dominion over the planet really. The film opens with a shot of an airplane circling in the air; against the backdrop of the sky, the aircraft, a symbol of man's drive and technological success, is but a speck, like a fly. Our first shot of the little girl similarly makes her look small and helpless against the span of the desert. Children represent the future, the next generation, and to see a child looking so vulnerable reminds us of how uncertain our continued existence really is. All this helps establish an ominous atmosphere and build a sense of mystery.

When we do finally see the ants, they aren't particularly realistic, but the ambition suggested by them is epic. The idea of thousands of giant ants scuttling about through the night and devouring all they come across is an unsettling idea, and the filmmakers don't linger on the images of the ants. We don't get an entire long shot of any ant; often they appear from out of a tunnel, over a hill, or bursting through a wall. We never see that many of them at a time, but like in Aliens, the number we don't see feels much greater.

Them! still has some of the sillier aspects of the 1950s sci-fi genre. It does seem a bit odd that Ben is retained as a point man during the entire span of the campaign to eradicate the ant menace. Whitmore plays the determined, righteous hero well, and I'm not complaining he's kept around, but I would think the military would rather utilize their own trained soldiers to go inside the nest and eliminate he bugs rather than send in a state cop with a flamethrower. The movie is also almost cheerfully optimistic that all aspects of our government from the scientists and military to police and elsewhere would wholeheartedly accept the seriousness of such a threat as giant bugs and effortlessly work together to confront it instead of bickering, politicking, or denying it as a more modern movie might have done.

Which is a bit odd because there are a few darker aspects of human nature the movie could have made a bigger deal about. The movie notes it was nuclear testing that mutated the bugs into something dangerous and later adds that we won't know what else humanity will have to face in the nuclear age. Again, it is mankind's folly, his arrogance and reckless tampering with nature, that created a monster. But the movie downplays a couple of other disconcerting elements of human behavior. To avoid a panic, our heroes insist on keeping the threat a secret from the public; a noble reason, but it might have been considered essential to warn people. When a nest is found to be under Los Angeles, the city is placed under martial law and overnight becomes an armed camp, and the media are suppressed. In a darkly funny scene, Graham interviews a pilot (Fess "Davy Crockett" Parker) locked in the nuthouse because he claimed he saw flying saucers that looked ants (queen ants flying to set up new colonies); Graham orders the doctors to keep the pilot locked up and forbidden from having visitors.

This is fascist behavior, though arguably justified against such a relentless, hive-minded enemy (Communism?), but still, it's something to see such extreme measures of the government, police, and military as ultimately heroic. Maybe I'm just paranoid because I've recently seen both versions of The Crazies, which depicted ineptitude and corruption in the government's response to a crisis.

Them! is also darker in other senses. The victims of the ants are eaten alive, and though we don't witness it in graphic detail, it sounds like an awful way to go. The little girl's entire family, we learn, was killed by the ants(including a sibling). Later, we see a woman react after having to identify her husband's corpse. Even, and I won't spoil who, one of our main characters is killed by the end, which caught me off guard.

Even though it's nearly sixty years old, Them! sure doesn't feel like it all the time. For the most part, it takes itself seriously and still has some intense moments and relevant themes. There's some camp to overcome occasionally, but this one towers over other movies of its ilk.

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