Tuesday, April 2, 2013
"A horror horde of crawl-and-crush giants clawing out of the earth from mile-deep catacombs!" They don't write taglines like that any more, and they don't make sci-fi like they did in the 1950s. That's why TheNAT's screening of "Them!" this Wednesday night at 7:00pm on the big screen is such a delight.
There's something truly wonderful and amazing about the science fiction films that emerged from the 1950s. I know some people mock the special effects for not being very special, and giggle at the wooden acting but for me those things are part of the charm of 50s sci-fi. Those aspects may date the films but what's often surprising is how well the themes and ideas still resonate today.
The 1950s are often referred to as a Golden Age of Science Fiction. Ray Bradbury ushered in the decade with his literary masterpiece, "The Martian Chronicles." Magazines were printing the stories of such sci-fi notables as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. And each year the sci-fi movies seemed to keep getting better. The decade began with "Destination Moon" in 1950, and was followed by "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Thing From Another World" (1951); "Red Planet Mars" (1952); "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," "It Came From Outer Space," and "The War of the Worlds" (1953); "Them!" and from Japan "Gojira" (1954); "Tarantula" and "This Island Earth" (1955); "Forbidden Planet" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956); "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957); "The Fly" (1958); and the decade closed out with "On the Beach" and "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil" (1959). An embarrassment of riches and that's just listing some choice examples.
The genre was fueled by both the dawning of the atomic age and the paranoia of the Cold War. Having witnessed the unimaginable destructiveness of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan (an even more powerful influence on that country's science fiction with "Gojira/Godzilla" directly emerging from that atomic fallout), people began to worry about what science might do next. It was a decade where writers and filmmakers began to ask questions about what if something goes wrong?
"Them!" is a prime example of the science-gone-wrong scenario that fueled so much science fiction of that decade, Set in the New Mexico desert (the site of the first ever nuclear testing in real life), Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) searches for a missing FBI agent. But what he finds is a string of mysterious deaths. It appears the victims died from an acute amount of formic acid in their bodies. Peterson eventually teams up with Robert Graham (James Arness), a Federal agent, and Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon), a pair of entomologists to try and resolve the mystery. What they discover are mutated ants that threaten to wipe out humanity.
The film was originally slated to be shot in color and in 3D but the studio got nervous and slashed the budget. So the film was shot in black and white without 3D. But it didn't matter, the film went on to become the highest grossing film that year for Warner Brothers. And deservedly so. Although the giant ants leave something to be desired by todays visual effects standards, its allegory about the dangers of the atomic age still hold weight. The film ends with these lines: "We have entered the atomic age. We’ve opened the door into another world. What we’ll eventually find nobody can predict.”
Of course Edmund Gwenn's entomologist frames the question more ominously: "We may be witnesses to a biblical philosophy come true. And there shall be destruction and darkness. And the beasts shall reign over the Earth!"
The film boasts some effective documentary-like footage and excellent sound work. It may provoke more laughter than terror now but it still remains a thoughtful science fiction classic from a golden era for the genre.
I hope you will attend the screening and stick around for a fun post film panel discussion of bugs and 50s sci-fi with TheNAT's enthusiastic entomologist Dr. Michael Wall, Horrible Imaginings Film Festival director and movie monster expert Miguel Rodriguez, and myself. Wall will also rivet you with some of the truly horrific things that go on for real in the bug world, and he'll discuss TheNAT's current bug exhibit Dr. Entomo's Palace of Exotic Wonders.