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Them (1954)

by on 2010/10/18

“When man entered the Atomic Age, he opened a door into a new world!  What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict!”

* * * *

I felt a low level cantankerousness when I decided to get into blogging.  While I’m a fan of much that is labelled “geeky”, I wouldn’t normally have seen the point of adding another grain of sand to the online op-ed wasteland.  The trouble is I disagreed with a lot of what I read.  Too often the Great Geek Majority failed to give voice to issues I cared about, or gave unfathomable support to others I didn’t.  To cut the self-indulgence short:  I am no fan of 3-D, but I don’t necessarily mind colorization.

Director Gordon Douglas had intended for 1954’s Them to be shot in colour and 3-D.  However in the eleventh hour producers pulled enough of the funding to preclude both.  While I have no issue with this pic being black and white, I’d be curious to see an outfit like Legend Films colorize it.  I agree with Ray Harryhausen’s argument that the process is justified where a project’s budget prevented it being realized as intended.  Not to supplant the original . . . but I’d love to have the choice.  As for 3-D, sure we can do such conversions but they’re proving less successful than colorization, and a headache I can do without.

WITNESS his shameful delusions!

THRILL to the outcry!

GET ON with the review!

The aforementioned Them is a science fiction classic, one of the earliest examples of the “irradiated monster” tale.  More mysterious than horrific, it begins in the White Sands of New Mexico, where residents go inexplicably missing.  A young orphan wanders the desert in shock.  A seasoned sharpshooter meets his match.  A young cop vanishes in search of the truth.  Strange noises, odd poisonings, and the long shadow of nuclear testing cast a pall over the area.  The clues don’t make any sense until the FBI enlists an entomologist team to identify the poison.  They reluctantly come to suggest the twist, long since spoiled by promotion:  the ants will be stepping on us for a change.

Doddering, endearing old Edmund Gwenn  (Miracle on 34th Street’s Kris Kringle) plays Dr. Harold Medford, one of the few investigators who knows what’s really going on.  James Arness — brother of the recently-deceased Peter Graves, and veteran of The Thing from Another World — portrays his FBI contact, Robert Graham.  Assisted by Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon), Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), and various military figures, they unravel the clues to determine whodunit and where they’ll do it next.  Like its many contemporaries it eschews much focus on its “lead” female, though I do admire its restraint in not assigning her the usual role of romantic foil, secretary, mother, or nun (and certainly nothing more salacious).

In fact aside from a few firefights, there is very little spectacle here.  While the absence of subplots suggests nothing so much as a documentary, the result is hardly dry and uninteresting.  This piece develops a palpable urgency as a result of its single-mindedness.  Even the exhausting of leads, a fruitless search for clues, and the interrogation of false suspects don’t suspend the action so much as add texture.  This verisimilitude extends beyond the plot mechanics.  The actors themselves take things fairly seriously, but where most B-movie gravitas becomes a joke in itself, here it never does.  I think perhaps the wrong way to do seriousness is to equate it with anger or condescension.  Here the performances are more solemn and subdued, delivered as if each line is being formulated in real time.  It’s a distinction marked by the cast’s thoughtfulness, and Them benefits greatly from their performances.

The non-human cast also keep things downbeat.  The antagonists — see what I did there? — don’t appear until a fair way through the story.  The effects are not exactly done in the “less is more” style I favour, but they stay sensibly intermittent.  We’ll never be convinced that these creatures are for real, but they are reasonable for their time and genre.  Like the zombies of yore, they move slowly and more believably than most stop motion efforts.  Plus, the fact that they’re insectile keeps us out of the uncanny valley.

Some aspects did present the customary laughs, especially one idea to track large sugar thefts, which reminded me of “Lisa’s Rival” (an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer’s interception of a sugar shipment is followed by beekeepers reminiscent of Batman’s Adam West and Burt Ward).  This movie reminded me of many others too, and not just because of its unintended humour.  Some scenes in the Los Angeles climax are accidentally evocative of Terminator 2, Die Hard 3, and Cloverfield.  Other aspects clearly influenced later works, including Starship Troopers, Fallout 3, and especially the Alien series, with its insectile scouts, an elusive queen, a nest of eggs to set aflame, and a waifish survivor a la Newt.

Notably — and in a rare dissimilarity from the Alien series — the scientists work hand-in-hand with the military, and focus their efforts on the destruction of the threat, not its preservation for exploitation and profit.  On a similar note, I also appreciated that the scientists openly admitted to not knowing it all, and entertained others’ suggestions.  As I watched, I found myself constantly returning to these social dynamics.  I was interested in how relationships between military, government, and press have changed over the years.  In Them a now-rare sense of trust and cooperation existed despite the timelessly questionable actions of its authorities:  the wrongful imprisonment of witnesses, the isolation and sinking of friendly vessels, and keeping Los Angelenos uninformed to avoid rioting.

Ultimately Them is still a science fiction B-picture, for which I am grateful.  Where else will you hear The Real Santa Claus deliver oddly-bemused Biblical prophecies or show an impromptu short film about ants?  Yes, it achieves its humble goals, but it also manages to do more.  It was (and remains) a fast-moving mystery, an intriguing procedural, and a terrific movie which not only exemplifies its genre but in many ways transcends it.

* * * *

Rated PG for frightening scenes

92 minutes

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