Before Aliens, before Starship Troopers, before The Swarm, even before Tarantula (my recommendation here), Hollywood discovered that bigging up bugs into a threat to humanity could translate a prevalent human anxiety into a nerve-jangling cinematic experience. The year was 1954 and the movie has since became revered as a trendsetting sci-fi classic: Them!
As I have said many times on the site, I love films that put the audience immediately into the story without ponderous context-setting. Them! is a master class in the art. The film opens with a little girl (Sandy Descher), visibly in shock, walking mutely across the New Mexico desert. She is rescued by police, led by the brave and compassionate Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore). The cops investigate, finding homes torn open, people dead or missing, and a suspicious quantity of spilled sugar. When the horrifying nature of their atomically-charged adversary becomes apparent, the authorities call in a stout FBI agent (James Arness), an eccentric, elderly myrmecologist (Edmund Gwenn), and his equally scientifically gifted daughter, who is also a dish (Joan Weldon). A thrilling humanity vs. super-insect war ensues.
Hollywood has always had prestige directors who make big budget, A-list films. But in the era when many people went to the movies every week, the studios also needed competent, no name directors who could efficiently deliver movies of all forms on a tight schedule. Gordon Douglas was cut from that cloth: he directed 27 films for Warner Brothers in the 1950s alone, most of which were modestly budgeted films destined to be second features in theaters for a couple weeks and then be forgotten. But he could make a very good movie when he was given the tools, as was here courtesy of original story writer George Worthing Yates, adapter Russell Hughes, and screenwriter Ted Sherdeman. His artistically outstanding decision was to direct the first 30 minutes of this movie like a ghost story set in the eerie expanses of sand-swirled desert. After one of the most famous big reveals in sci-fi film history, the story then becomes a more conventional “bug hunt”, but Douglas handles that form well enough to bring the audience along with him.
Whitmore and Arness’s characters don’t make much sense, in that they start out as a highway patrolman and FBI agent and end up practically running the U.S. military’s anti-ant operations. But they are strong-jawed enough to be upstanding and believable action heroes. As a daffy but brilliant professor, Gwenn adds some welcome humor, and Weldon is credible as a confident and intelligent woman (not many of those in movies of this period) who catches Arness’ eye while also helping save our species.
The other attraction here are the Oscar-nominated special effects. By modern CGI standards, they are of course laughable. But at the time, they were pathbreaking. And in any event, part of appreciating old monster movies is finding the charm of the craft of SPFX creators in a pre-high-tech environment.