June 22, 2011

Movies Revisited: Them! (1954)

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This week, we go back to 1954 for the seminal sci-fi thriller Them! (MRQE Metric: 80), starring James Arness, Edmund Gwenn and James Whitmore.

Them! begins with a loud orchestra, and a title card that blasts over the screen in a bright red font (the only color in this black & white film). A local police officer (Whitmore) and his partner drive through the New Mexico desert in response to a distress call. They discover a little girl, walking alone in a state of shock. She has seen something, but we don't know what. The officers discover the girl's abandoned family trailer nearby; it has been torn apart, with a hole ripped out the side. The local general store is found destroyed as well. No evidence except a trail of spilled sugar and a large, peculiar footprint.

Soon an FBI agent arrives (Arness), followed by a doctor (Gwenn)/daughter team from the Department of Agriculture. They investigate the desert landscape, through sandstorms and foreboding winds. A strange sound is heard in the dark, like that of screeching wheels on a shopping cart. Then, as the younger doctor studies a footprint, a creature appears over the mound.

"THEM! THEM!" the little girl screams upon waking from her frozen state. "THEM!" are giant ants that have mutated as a result of atomic bomb testing.

The U.S. Air Force is brought in to exterminate the insects. They discover the nesting ground and kill the bugs with poison gas. But the younger doctor finds that two queen bugs have escaped. One of the queens is found attacking an ocean freighter carrying sugar and is subsequently destroyed.

The other queen takes some time to find. Them! briefly becomes an investigative thriller as the FBI agent and officer use questioning tactics with an alcoholic, followed by a case of a dead father and his missing sons, to eventually track down the other queen ant in a Los Angeles drain system.

This is where they discover the brood! Whitmore's officer rescues the missing sons, but gets attacked and killed by an ant in the process. In the film's climax, Arness and the rest of the military discover the queen's egg chamber and destroy the whole colony with flamethrowers. The old doctor ends the film with this line:

"When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict."

Them! is truly a classic. Its influence on the science fiction genre is unmistakable. Whether it is story elements like the sugar craving (Men in Black), the queen and her colony (Aliens) or the bug trapped in amber stone (Jurassic Park); Or story structure: the monster does not appear in the film until roughly 30 minutes in, a suspense technique used to similar effect in Spielberg's Jaws and most recently J.J. Abram's Super 8.

My father told me that Them! was the first movie he saw at the drive-in as a boy, and he loved it. Growing up in the Spielberg/Scorcese/Lucas generation, I can imagine each of those filmmakers being equally mesmerized.

If you can momentarily divert your attention from Transformers 3-D this summer, you will find Them! to be a very well told story. It's streaming on Netflix this month.

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