Review: Them! (1954)
“No. We haven’t seen the end of them. We’ve only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us.”
I been trying to plug some gaps in my filmic knowledge, I think it would be a bit boring to watch The Dark Knight for the gazillionith time (which I did anyway). So I logged into Lovefilm, saw my ridiculously long list (253 films/TV shows on my watch list, my aim is to reduce that to zero by the end of the year) and thought ‘maybe I’ll watch Them!’
Them! is not the French horror film from a few years ago but a Fifties science fiction film about giant ants. Yes, giant ants. Coming from an age where sci-fi was more a B-movie extravagance (much like the horror genre at the time) but striving for more Them! is adventurous in some ways and dour in others. A look at the premise (imagine this being uttered by the Fifties voice over man -‘the earliest atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization.’) is enough to make you think it’s low grade garbage but there’s a seriousness to the film that makes it just a little bit endearing.
Very much a product of its time, Them! starts of in an interesting manner. Two policemen, Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and trooper Ed Blackburn [Chris Drake], come across a young girl who’s lost and in shock. They eventually find out where she lives only to discover that the trailer has been utterly destroyed. They widen their search and come across a shop also suffering from inexplicable damage and when they find the shopkeeper dead they call it in. Peterson leaves while the Blackburn stays to patrol the area only he too disappears. The disappearances set in motion an investigation as scientists and the Government try to uncover what happened and how to destroy the emerging threat.
Now while it’s hard to be scared by ants, even giant ants that look like they have antennae made out of felt, the feeling of Nuclear War is never far away. When Dr Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) refers to the ants causing the end of humanity in a prophetic manner you can imagine he’s referring to the prospect of all out nuclear war. There’s even a short interlude as we journey to the heart of power as the film expands to Washington and a meeting with some high ranking officials convened in the shadow of the Capitol House. It follows in the long trend of science fiction films told from a government/scientist’s view making the film overly serious in a manner you wouldn’t expect with such a genre premise.
It’s a very traditional film despite an attempt to alter the perception of female characters in science-fiction. Women were damsels in distress in most movies I’ve seen from this period (Forbidden Planet springs to mind) and although this film takes some confident enough advances in cementing a strong female character, you also are made aware that they’re being held back. You laugh at how surprised men are in this film when Joan Weldon (Dr Patricia ‘Pat’ Medford) announces her role and how taken aback they are when she accompanies them on a excursion, they reluctantly allow her to come on the proviso that they go first. How chivalrous.
It’s no surprise that when an ant attacks, it attacks her and the men come rushing in guns blazing or that she’s affectionately called Pat and not Dr Medford. Thankfully we’re spared a romantic subplot between her and FBI agent Graham (James Arness); nevertheless she fades from view as the film moves on.
The film lags in the second act and so did my interest as apart from an excursion into the ant hive nothing substantial happens until the third act. What follows are selfless sacrifices, ants set on fire with flamethrowers (I guess it’s better than scalding hot water) and heroic acts. It’s entertaining enough film but the ending fizzles (or should I say sizzles) and Dr Harold Medford pops up again to give another sermon. It comes across as a little trite and preachy, a film in search of some greater depth that ends up in a safe and familiar place.