Wednesday, October 19, 2011

And the Beasts Shall Reign Over the Earth: Them!

The title appeared in color, though
the film was shot in B&W.
In a New Mexico desert, two state troopers pick up a six-year-old girl wandering aimlessly in a bathrobe and slippers, carrying a broken doll. When Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) tries to question the little girl, she remains silent, staring in space--a victim of shock. Up the road, Peterson and his partner discover a trailer with a large hole ripped in one side. Bloody clothes and dollar bills litter the floor...as well as a corpse. Outside the trailer, the troopers discover an unusual footprint in the sand, made by neither man nor known beast. As the desert wind whistles, an eerie sound causes the girl to look up in trepidation.

The young survivor of the first attack.
This brilliant opening scene sets the stage for the first-third of Them!, which unravels more as a mystery than a science fiction film. The clues are revealed one by one: a hardware store destroyed in the same manner as the trailer; the sudden arrival of scientists from the Department of Agriculture; an autopsy that reveals a victim may have died from an injection of formic acid; and finally the little girl screaming "Them! Them!" after taking a whiff of the acid.

The first we see a giant ant
is during a sandstorm.
By the time Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn) reveals that the culprits are giant ants, it's almost anticlimactic. It also marks a shift in approach as the mystery gives way to a standard science fiction formula. To be sure, Them! executes the formula with precision, with three marvelous set pieces: the first glimpse of the ants as one becomes visible during a sandstorm; a cyanide gas assault on the ants' nest; and the climax in Los Angeles storm drains.

Yet, its very success is what makes Them! slightly disappointing on second and later viewings. Certainly, it ranks above all but a handful of science fiction films produced during the 1950s; it's a unqualified genre classic. However, stripped of its novelty "mystery approach" and big pay-off scenes, it lacks a potent theme that resonates in the same way as truly timeless genre films like The Day the Earth the Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even The Incredible Shrinking Man.

One could argue that Them! is the definitive example of the "nuclear power-caused mutant creature subgenre." Still, that's nothing new thematically. Man invented nuclear power, so we're back to the old sci fi staple of man messing around in areas he shouldn't and inadvertently creating monsters. This is a theme at least as old as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and featured in earlier sci fi films such as The Invisible Ray (1936). What Them! brings to it is a dark sense of humor, in that through man's intervention, the tiniest of creatures threatens to wipe out all of mankind.

Whitmore opens fire as Gwenn's
scientist observes the giant ant.
It seems unfair perhaps to criticize Them! because of its own high standards. To be sure, the cast is above average for a 1950s sci fi opus, with Edmund Gwenn giving new life to the standard role of the scientist that figures it all out. The special effects, while not on a Harryhausen level, work well enough, aided considerably by the inspired settings (e.g., the sandstorm, the tunnels). And although there is some sexism directed toward Joan Weldon's Dr. Pat Medford (e.g., she's introduced legs first), she evolves into a strong character. True, she investigates the first crime scene in a dress suit and high heels. But later, she ditches that for a military uniform and accompanies the male heroes in the tunnels to make sure the ants are dead.

Even if its potency fades during repeated viewings, Them! has earned its status as a genre classic. Its "mystery approach" alone makes it a unique sci fi film. There can also be no doubt that it was an influential film, inspiring 1950s imitators such as Beginning of the End (giant grasshoppers), Tarantula, Earth vs. the Spider, and The Deadly Mantis (as in big preying mantis).

8 comments:

  1. A very interesting piece, particularly your observation that the movie has less impact with repeated showings. Plot-driven rather than character-driven stories tend that way, but I suppose a film that needs shock value as part of its package suffers even more.

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  2. Rick, I don't think you should judge Them by todays standards it's not fair. First this film was mostly shot on real locations not back lots or sound stages the LA river in fact was pretty new at the time ,but has been used many many times since. Second the ants were not small stop motion models. Third besides the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (another Warners 50 Si Fi film) what other film of that time has a lead bite the dust? Four, It has Fess Parker in a bit part, that counts for something. Five Hey the climax is in LA. the first SI Fi film that was. Yes the impact is not as strong with repeated showings (how can it be?) But if you first saw the film as I did as a child living in So Cal you knew where most of action took place, and it was just a little to real.

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  3. I find that in some ways "Them!" improves upon viewing. Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, I sit back and notice Edmund Gwenn's lovely performance or the fine building of the dialogue or wonder if that is Dorothy Green playing the uniformed police woman at the station. Or maybe I just like looking at James Arness in contemporary garb. It's a perennial for me.

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  4. Thanks for a terrific review of one of my favorite films. Caftan Woman is right, this film does improve upon viewing.

    That little girl is, was and always will be the heart and soul of this movie for me.

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  5. I admire THEM! and have owned a copy of it for several years. However, it ranks a notch below other sci fi classsics of the 1950s such as DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Perhaps, it's because those films maintain a timeless quality due to their focus on humanity--the discovery of it, the loss of it, and the infinite search for it.

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  6. Rick, your write-up on THEM! is up to your usual excellent standards. While you may consider it relatively less fresh now than it was upon its initial theatrical release, what keeps me coming back for repeat viewings is the human factor. The characters resonate with me, especially the families. As a mom, my heart goes out to the dazed little girl who lost her family to the giant ant attacks, and the frantic mom whose young sons are missing after her husband was killed while he was out enjoying some family time with his boys. As you said, the focus on humanity is what makes THEM! worth viewing again and again.

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  7. I love THEM. For me, it is one of those movies I cannot resist watching when it is on TV. I don't feel that it has lost anything really -- it's like a well-read book which, although you know everything, still has things to show you. I agree with Caftan Woman that it gives you a chance to really appreciate the performances of Edmund Gwenn and for me, particularly the wonderful performance of James Whitmore. He was so stalwart and caring, and it really hurt when he met his end saving the boys. Still, I can see your point about Them perhaps not being in the top level in the sense of uniqueness, but I also believe it was unique in quality of most all sci-fi films, especially the big bug movies. Excellent review, Rick...

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  8. I forgot -- the drunk in the hospital gets me laughing every time! "Make me a sargeant and gimme the booze!"

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