Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
Plot: Soldiers, scientists and an FBI agent race to stop a nest of gigantic irradiated ants in the New Mexico desert before they spread across the U.S.
Context: In my previous retrospective reviews of 50s Sci Fi movies (aka The Golden Age of Sci Fi Films) I have tied them to particular anniversaries like the 65th or 70th. But on my many Sci Fi Facebook groups one film that gets mentioned quite often and with the most glowing of reviews is 1954 Sci Fi monster film Them! I had never seen it (I know, take away my geek card, tear it up and then burn it) so I decided to finally check it out. And you know what? It is as awesome as everyone says it is. With a towering, pulsating SPOILER ALERT here’s my retro review in three bites:
Bite #1 Characters Old and Young
The titular ants are easily the stars of the film, and we will get to them soon, but I wanted to chat a bit about the non-insectoid characters. Sometimes in 50s Sci Fi the fictional threat can completely overshadow the humans seen onscreen, and so much so that one can barely remember who they were far less their names. But Them! does a good job of making the main cast stand out.
Veteran and award-winning actor James Whitmore is the epitome of the determined soldier as Sgt. Ben Peterson. Edmund Gwenn makes for a believable scientist as the knowledgeable and quirky Dr Harold Medford. Joan Weldon plays his daughter and fellow scientist Dr Pat Medford, and she is no damsel-in-distress or pretty window dressing but is smart, assertive and integral to the plot. And she has a sweet, subtle romantic chemistry with salt-of-the-earth and witty FBI Agent Robert Graham. He was played by James Arness, who three years prior was on the villain side in The Thing From Another World but is best known as Marshal Matt Dillon from long-running TV western Gunsmoke. While watching I actually cared about these characters, which made their peril all the more palpable. And I did feel sad when poor Sgt Peterson bit the big one. Cue Taps.
And speaking of Sgt Peterson’s death, if you recall it was to save two boys who had been cornered by the giant buggers in the Los Angeles storm drain system in the final act. While one of the young actors looked believably terrified during the sequence the other just stood there expressionless. One can argue that he was acting as though he was in shock but I didn’t get that; he just seemed to be disinterested and it pulled me out of the scene somewhat. Much better was Sandy Drescher as the Ellinson girl. She does commendable work in her catatonic state and her ear-piercing screams of IT’S THEM is understandably iconic. Sure, our heroes learn little from her because she plays the pronoun game, but it serves to turn the dial up on the tension before we go to all out Us vs Them war.
Bite #2 Special Effects and Action
Modern day audiences watching Them! for the first time would probably chuckle at the look of the eight-foot ants. And yes, they don’t look real and are kinda hokey, but this was 1954. We were many decades from CGI, so their options were to either use real ants, stop motion or go practical. I give them props for going the practical route as you can tell effort was put in. And it allowed for seamless physical interaction, gave the ants weight and presence, and made them feel like a real threat as they grabbed and crushed people between their giant mandibles. I eventually got used to the designs and allowed myself to get sucked into the action.
And I was pleasantly surprised by how much action is in this movie. There is so much gunplay, explosions and flamethrowers oh my! I was like, KILL THEM ALL! KILL THEM WITH FIRE! Watching the soldiers give those brutes hell was so entertaining and I don’t think it will ever get old.
But my favourite aspect of those six-legged bastards was that pulsating sound they made. You hear it before you even see them onscreen, and man that noise made my skin crawl. Whether as a warning that they were coming or a cry as they attacked, the pulsating sound never ceased to be creepy. And I loved it. Of all the things in the film that is what I will remember the most.
Bite #3 Pacing and Plot
And finally, let’s talk about the pacing and the plot. For a film about giant ants it would be easy to just jump into the human killing action and let the rest of the movie be humans alternatively running and fighting with the insects until finally emerging victorious. But not director Gordon Douglas. We start off proceedings with the investigation of the wandering little girl and the devastated vacation trailer. It’s a great slow burn that layers on the tension deftly. When the first ant finally appears it is like HOLY CRAP! After some exterminating action the story moves to the hunt for the escaped queens.
And the film treats its wild premise very realistically, soberly and scientifically. Dr Harold Medford gives a whole lecture about the ant life cycle which potentially could be boring but is so tied into the plot that you have to pay attention (or at least you should). And we wind things up with epic final battle in the Los Angeles storm drain that delivers and then some. There is a scene where they put flamethrowers to the ant eggs which reminded me of a similar scene in Aliens. Coincidence or inspiration? Who knows. We end proceedings with Dr Medford’s warning about what man unleashed when entering the Atomic Age, which was timely for the post-WWII era but can still be applied today to the dangers of unchecked scientific progress.
I came into Them! expecting a fun monster film but I did not expect the movie to be so smart, well-acted, action packed and just plain awesome. I now understand why it is so beloved by so many. It also remains an important film as one of the first 1950s “nuclear monster” films and the very first “big bug” film to use giant insects as the monster (Wikipedia). So if you haven’t seen it, then you definitely should pay Them! a visit. Now excuse me while I go scream pronouns into a camera.
Editor Jules’s Score: 9 out of 10
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.
And you can check out more great 50s Sci Fi classics below: