I have a soft spot for the big bug monster movies of the 50’s, for sure, but Them! stands so far above the competition, in terms of storytelling, directing, creation of mood and overall sense of emotional maturity, it’s not hard to see why it became so influential on later bigger budgeted monster movies. For instance, with visually impressive elements like the search for the giant ants through claustrophobic underground sewers, the lair of the Queen Ants, the eggs with the Ant larvae squirming around inside and flame throwers to burn them out, it’s not to hard to imagine where James Cameron’s inspiration came from for his 1986 smash hit Aliens.
The opening scenes, from the unsettled police (led by the sympathetic figure of James Whitmore) finding a dazed young girl so traumatized she’s unable to speak walking alone in the desert carrying her destroyed doll (more hints of “Aliens”), through their discovery of the parents’ trailer, destroyed and abandoned, and then on to a local demolished isolated tavern — with its proprietor dead — accompanied by mysterious sounds in the desert just above the whistling of the desert wind, creates a haunting, mature mood and pacing that far surpasses what you would suspect, or maybe that was even required of this type of film.
While I’ve read a lot of consensus on the film’s underlying perspective as, typical to most of this 1950’s American big bug genre, based in conservative reactionary fear and paranoia stemming from the cold war and encroaching communism (with the giant ants described by a scientist in the film as much like humans, though more savage, who will enslave their captors on the way to taking over the earth — just like, you know, communists!), I would argue there are genuinely progressive tenets all throughout the film to counter that assessment. With the creatures assumed to be born from the radiation of atomic bomb testing, the nasty giant ants are ultimately a natural blowback from man’s own destructive nature and infatuation with weaponry. There is a determined presence in the early scenes of guns and rifles – in both the destroyed trailer and tavern – reminding us that weapons are always close (be they hand gun, rifle… or atomic bomb). Even the scientist who describes the giant ants’ innate savagery and inherent characteristic of intra-species killing, concludes by pointing out their similarity to man himself
Speaking of ‘man’, there’s also some progressive views on women (well, as far as it could go in a 50’s scifi film, anyway), with not just one, but two (yep, TWO) important females (one a doctor, one a scientist) who prove not only important to the film, but proactively make decisions that lead directly to major narrative shifts in the story. And then there’s the wonderful little character aside of the pretty woman who, while being questioned as to her whereabouts and in her alibi of visiting a sick friend, openly – and casually! — admits “he’s married, so I ask that you leave him out of this”. To my surprise, they not only let her go, but without any punishment at all from the film gods or reprisal from the police. Not sure how that got past the Catholic League of Decency, but certainly glad it did.
The film is abundant in nice character touches, creating the sense that just about all the side characters — be they the two wonderfully bantering homeless men picked up for questioning that defiantly refuse to deal with authority, the alcoholic in the infirmary who declines to join the military, the two boys in jeopardy by the ants, with one of them directed to cry and the other to quietly stand stoically unmoving, the heartbroken mother who waits in terror on the fate of her boys and the two policeman who the James Whitmore character can’t seem to get their names right — have a genuine life outside of their little moments in the film.
Okay, true, the film DOES end with the threat to the status quo being destroyed and the patriarchal dominant order restored… however, even then, our old man scientist gives his final ominous speech about the fragile uncertainty of the future with the doors the atomic age has opened… followed immediately by the final image that we fade out on of a burning lair of death and destruction. Potent stuff. A good moment that illustrates the dichotomy of perspectives is when our FBI agent hero (James Arness) complains to the female scientist about her and her father’s overuse of scientific jargon. “If you two only spoke English, perhaps we could all get along”, he says, speaking both more broadly to the idea that if humans (i.e. the US and Russia) learned to communicate there would be no need for weapons and destructive impulses, while also, unfortunately, defaulting to an acquiescence of everyone to the dominant (patriarchal) language. So there’s a bunch going on in this film.
I also gotta mention what I only noticed now after seeing this on the big screen for the first time – while Revenge of the Creature may have its fun pre-fame cameo by Clint Eastwood, Them! also manages a quick moment with another icon to come; a very young, pre-Spock (by over 10 years) Leonard Nimoy! After it was over, at least half of the audience impressively hung out in the lobby afterwards discussing how good this film really is, which I was glad to be a part of with my daughter who I took to see it for the first time.