Sunday, November 16, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Ants!

While a lot of sci-fi is based around mind-boggling concepts like alternative worlds, time-travel, intergalactic politics, technology singularities and post-human evolution, it’s occasionally nice to revisit SF’s most simple and familiar premise: an attack by something very large. It might be a giant ape evolved in isolation or an alien invader from space, but ever since 1954’s “Godzilla,” atomic mutation has become the culprit of choice.

In mediocre films for the past sixty years humanity has been assailed by enormous lizards, 50 foot women, praying mantises, venus flytraps, killer tomatoes, spiders, wasps, slugs, shrews, crabs, cacti and much more. Collectively, I’ll refer to these as “Attack of the X” or “Giant X” films. Today we’ll be looking at one particular foe: ants.

Perhaps because of their steadfast industrial workaholic nature, ants are quite capable of inspiring resentment, if not particularly fear. Their vast numbers, hierarchical society and constructed cities make them popular metaphors for, or rivals of, human civilization. Their collective-before-individual behavior made them suitable cinematic stand-ins for the presumed inhumanity of communism during the Cold War.

Today’s Iceberg Arena will force three ant armies to square off, hailing from the films “Them!” “Phase IV” and “Empire of the Ants.”

Them! (1954)

After finding a little girl wandering the desert in a state of shock, the New Mexico police begin an investigation, quickly discovering a shredded trailer and a general store ransacked for sugar. A wise entomologist and his partner/daughter suspect giant ants, a hypothesis soon proven correct when they are attacked by a patrol. The government manages to locate the nest in the desert and flamethrower troopers are sent in to wipe it out, Unfortunately, two queens fly out in time to start new hives, one that must be scuttled in a cargo ship transporting sugar while the other gets dramatically purged from the underground maze of the L.A. sewer system.

“Them!” was one of the earliest Giant X films, and its effective combination of SF and horror was highly influential on the countless waves of knockoffs. The original story by George Worthing Yates is the primary asset, hurrying the action through several stages and maintaining the suspense even as the “shocking” revelations are dispensed with and the stakes escalated. Lesser monster films delay the action for too long (as if the posters and trailers hadn’t already spoiled the anticipated creatures) and wade through viscous filler before going all-out in the last ten minutes.

The cheap-but-distinctive sets help sell the situation whether they're exploiting the exposure of the open desert or the claustrophobia of the hive tunnels and sewer nests. The giant ants themselves are mean and plentiful, gnashing their jaws, waving their antennae and emitting high pitched whines and clicks. Action scenes are frequent, with ants biting people in half or getting fried to a crisp.

None of this should be taken to mean that the film is realistic or scary. The serious tone, oversized ant puppets and scientific babble makes for vintage cheese. “Them!” endures as solid entertainment today because it provides retro silliness without the poor pacing and embarrassing incompetence of duds like "The Wasp Woman" or "The Giant Gila Monster."

Phase IV (1974)

“Phase IV” is something of exception amongst ant films and Giant X cinema more generally, because, well, the ants aren’t giant. A secluded research dome is set up to with a two man skeleton crew to monitor unusually aggressive ant colonies that have been terrorizing a small town and even making geometric crop circles. The film wastes no time having the local population either evacuate or die, leaving the two scientists and an orphaned girl to match their wits against a diabolic ant siege.

Saul Bass is better known for his graphic design work (he created the logos for AT&T and several major airlines) and innovative title sequences (like the paper cut-outs in “Anatomy of a Murder” and the moving text in “Vertigo”) than this singular feature film effort. Yet despite setting out with a pedestrian premise and miniscule budget, Bass’s work is closer to an existential art film than a B-movie monster flick. After a rambling, garbled kickoff, the film gradually begins to convert snickers to shivers with its eerie sun-scorched cinematography and unrelenting conviction.

It’s clear from the dogmatic dialog and clunky performances that Bass wasn’t an “actor’s director,” but his extensive deployment of ant macro photography, far beyond the usual stock-footage inserts, manages to put the hive and humanity on equal footing. This unusual amount of insect screen time actually goes a long way towards making the story work, especially in vignettes showing the self-sacrificing ants adapting to a yellow chemical spray or attempting to single-handedly destroy some electronic equipment while being hunted by a mantis.

The tenacity and resourcefulness of the ants is ultimately a convincing depiction of how armies of tiny creatures could conquer the planet. Combined with Dick Bush’s coldly observant cinematography and the weird, pessimistic finale, this certainly makes for one of the most chilling and underappreciated monster movies of its era. I also find it interesting to note, especially given Bass’s background as a title designer, that the title does not appear until the arresting final image.

Empire of the Ants (1977)

If the exposition in “Phase IV” is a limping misfire, then the grueling snoozefest at the start of “Empire of the Ants” is something far worse. Why we must listen to the petulant yammering of crudely-developed caricatures destined to be indiscriminately dished out as ant bait is beyond me. These are the type of characters that you hope will die; men who pointlessly suggest that the group split up and woman who would rather spend their last ten minutes screaming than outpacing the glacial monster-dolls being waved about by some poor schmuck just offscreen. Sadly, that passes for an FX-packed money shot in a film where the insects are made to look giant by – and I wish I were making this up – filming ants crawling on still photos of the sets.

I should talk about the plot, but I got sidetracked with frustration. Anyway, the story is about a group of prospective real estate buyers who are stranded on a tropical island where radiation has caused giant ants to take over. The queen ant uses pheromones to turn nearby townspeople into zombie slaves and forces them to harvest a king’s ransom in sugar cane.

The film stars a pre-“Dynasty” Joan Collins, who would later leave this title off her resume. The acting is atrocious, the pacing unbearable and the cinematography flat. Yet somehow I found this film nightmare inducing as a youngster, though to provide some context I was also frightened of brontosauruses and Ronald McDonald.

We happened to own this film on VHS because a cardiac medicine vendor mailed my father a series of “video classics” that had promotional infomercials for experimental medications in the place of trailers. I always wondered if some physician out there was really so grateful to own a copy of “The Graduate” or "Midnight Cowboys" that they actually prescribed their patients FDA-unapproved drugs. I don’t think my dad has ever gotten around to watching the film (or the infomercial), but for some reason I’ve seen it three times now.


This is actually kind of a hard choice. “Empire of the Ants” is so impossibly bad that it almost might be the most fun to watch if you have a group of MST3K-type friends, but then again, all three of these films work well for humorous camp and the others are much more entertaining.

“Phase IV” is really the film I’d like to declare the winner, for its wildly disproportionate ambition if nothing else. It’s worth checking out if you're even slightly curious and definitely deserves a cult following. Still, I think the answer has to be “Them!,” which is just so classically fun and alarmist. It remains a staple of retro-SF cinema and stands a head above most of its brethren.

Winner: Them!


Mad Dog said...

Hey, I actually got to see Empire of the Ants with you! It... my god. I didn't think a film could have a worse exposition than that movie. A bunch of schmucks complaining about a stupid development project or whatever? It's like two movies: one featuring a boat party full of the world's worst people and every now and then it cuts to shots of ants on photos. I really can't believe the gall of the special effects in that movie.

FilmWalrus said...

Yeah, I think it's still in my bottom 10. It was often too boring to be fun even in a bad way.

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