Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Them! (1954)

Who's In It: James Whitmore (Planet of the Apes, The Shawshank Redemption), Edmund Gwenn (Miracle of 34th Street), Joan Weldon (Them!), and James Arness (The Thing from Another World, Gunsmoke). With Daniel Boone and Mr Spock in bit roles.

What It's About: Nuclear testing creates giant ants that threaten to destroy the world.

How It Is: I love '50s scifi movies, especially when they involve alien invasions and giant, mutated animals. Maybe because they speak so deeply to my Cold War Kid's heart, since I grew up in a time when we were terrified of communist invasion and atomic weapons.

But even with a fairly high baseline to star from, Them! is a step or two above the others in the genre. To start with, the performances are strong, which wasn't always the case with the genre. But what I really like is the way the story unfolds through a serious, procedural style. Whitmore is especially great as Sgt Peterson, the main character for most of the movie. He's one of the police officers who discovers the first of the ants' victims and his obsession with learning the truth and then eliminating the threat is what drives the film for a good long while.

Unfortunately, as more and more people get involved, like the scientists played by Gwenn and Weldon or Arness' FBI agent, the less character work the movie is able to do. In fact, by the time Whitmore's character reaches the conclusion of his story arc, it's barely commented on because so much else is going on. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 enormous arthropods


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I remember seeing this on TCM around the time I was finishing high school and liked it. Good to hear holds up somewhat and that my memory isn't just fluffing it up with nostalgia.

It does have that quintessential 50s scifi movie trope of starting out with a mystery of "what did this to these people?!". It's as if science fiction was so unexpectable as entertainment that you had to trick people into watching this mystery thriller before we get to the giant monsters.

I suppose the social commentary goes without saying that nuclear energy can make something small get out of control. I'm having a hard time thinking of any 50s genre movie that doesn't address nukes in some way.

James Cameron has spoken of this being an influence on Aliens with the catatonic little girl and soldiers fighting the queen at the end. If you're going to borrow, borrow from the best I suppose.

Michael May said...

I didn't make the Aliens connection, but that makes a lot of sense. I really like the way the ants are introduced through the little girl in Them! in the same way that I like how Newt is their herald in Aliens. Very cool.

Michael May said...

I don't know that scifi was unacceptable (I think that's what you meant?) in the '50s. I just think of the mystery angle as their way of grounding the story in reality. It's like the way that a lot of early adventure novelists would begin their books with a statement about how they got this tale from an old sailor or a found journal or something. It eases the audience into the more fantastical elements.


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