The rich and fertile landscape of American science-fiction was sown in the 1950’s, and the production companies that ploughed the land most consistently were Universal International Pictures and American International Pictures. The former were able to bring a certain degree of filmmaking sophistication to such efforts as It Came from Outer Space (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and The Monolith Monsters (1957), and they gave director Jack Arnold a platform to investigate his thematic concerns in a series of sci-fi pictures that culminated with his unqualified masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). In some quarters Arnold is considered an auteur, and so too is Roger Corman, who was to AIP what Arnold was to UI. By contrast the productions of AIP were marked by ultra low budgets, non-existent production values, and owing to their status as independent producers and distributors a certain amount of political and social radicalism. Like the cycle of monochrome horrors initiated in the 1930’s by Universal every major production company got in on the act, and independent production outfits had a field day with material perfectly suited to the drive-ins and the affluent teenage demographic; for whatever reason Warner Bros. were consistently uninterested in the booming sci-fi/horror cycle of the 1950’s. This mirrored their lack of interest in the horror cycle of the 1930’s, which was paid the slightest lip service with a small handful of films. Their influence in the 1950’s extended mostly to the area of distribution as they put out The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Godzilla Raids Again (1955), X the Unknown (1956), and The Black Scorpion (1957). Their sole foray into the area of production was clearly intended to emulate the success of 20,000 Fathoms, and it did so and more, with a prehistoric dinosaur being replaced by a colony of giant irradiated ants.
Much of the tension in these desert bound sequences is generated by an eerie electronic sound effect which represents the nearby presence of a giant ant. When the mutated creatures are given screen time they are an inevitable let down, but their omnipotent threat remains undiminished. Them! is a sci-fi film that emphasises consensus and cooperation, Peterson is not at all resentful of FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness), and neither flatfoot show indignation towards the two scientists Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Patricia (Joan Weldon), though inevitably we do have to endure the typical gender dynamics that often blight these films. It has to be said though that Patricia represents a relatively strong feminine presence as she takes on the physical duties that her aged father is no longer able to perform. This includes a standout sequence in which she leads an expedition into the central ant colony, only to discover that the winged queen has fled to pastures new. The consensual nature of the film extends to the authorities (both political and military) when Medford explains his thesis in Washington. It is perhaps the ease with which all parties concede to Medford’s proposals that doesn’t quite ring true, but it does afford the affable doctor an opportunity to present a lecture on the nature of ants and in so doing distil the propagandist themes of the picture. The film that Medford shows emphasises the collective structure of the ant society, all working to a common cause, and all willing to subsume their individuality for the good of the wider group. The allusions to Soviet communism are transparently conveyed, but fortunately Them! chooses not to labour the point as it shifts gear in the final third as the storm drains of Los Angeles become a war zone between mankind and the mutated ants it has unwittingly created.
© Shaun Anderson 2012