Them! , written by George Worthing Yates, Russell Hughes and Ted Sherdman, directed by Gordon Douglas, starring James Whitmore (Peterson), Edmund Gwenn (Dr. Medford), Joan Weldon (“Pat” Medford), and James Arness (Graham) (1954): Giant insects are fun to think about and essentially impossible thanks to very basic laws of physics and biology. Insects don’t have lungs — they breathe through their skin. But basic math tells us that as surface area increases as a square, volume increases as a cube.
A 12-foot-long ant (like the ones in this movie) would need lungs, which supply a gigantic amount of oxygen-processing surface area, or it would suffocate. It would also need a major structural and/or chemical redesign to allow its body, which evolved to be a teeny, tiny size, to support its cubed-increasing mass. Of course, hyper-dense endoskeletons or exoskeletons can explain a lot in science-fiction movies — King Kong’s necessary bone density and skin thickness might very well make him nearly impervious to bullets. A giant ant that actually could walk around without essentially crushing itself would be a pretty tough hombre.
In any case, this is a great movie, and several scenes pretty clearly indicate that it was on James Cameron’s mind when he conceived Aliens. American atomic testing of the 1940’s has created a giant, mutated strain of ants living hitherto undiscovered in the desert until they run out of food and start going after people. And sugar. Because first you get the sugar, then you get the power, and then you get the women. Or something like that. There’s a nice, stark moment of cinematography when we come across the entrance to the anthill and see the human and animal skeletal debris littering the ground around it.
Scientists, local police, the FBI and the military soon must band together to find and destroy the anthill (and what an anthill!) before new queens hatch and go forth to be fruitful, multiply, and wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. A young Leonard Nimoy even shows up briefly to operate a teletype. All hands on deck!
Sharp, suspenseful writing and surprisingly good special and visual effects help lend an aura of verisimilitude to the events. The giant mechanical ants are kept off screen for the most part, appearing in glimpses except in major scenes, and the addition of a truly annoying ‘ant noise’ helps distract one from thinking too much about whether or not the ants look all that convincing.
The cast is terrific as well — this was a big-budget science-fiction movie when there were almost no ig-budget science-fiction movies, and James Whitmore, James Arness (soon to be Marshal Matt Dillon on TV’s Gunsmoke), Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street) and Fess Parker (soon to be Davy Crockett on TV) help sell these improbable events. I’d suggest a remake with modern CGI, but I fear that the sensibilities of most modern filmmakers would put impersonally rendered, reductively literalized CGI ants front and centre, stripping any such remake of tension and suspense. Highly recommended.