Them! (1954, Gordon Douglas)

Them! combines Atomic Age giant monster sci-fi and “by the book” police procedural, with a little (too little) war action thrown in. Nine years after the atomic bomb tests in New Mexico, residual radiation has caused common desert ants to grow to enormous sizes. In their hunt for sugar, these ants quickly have become carnivores, feeding on the random, unlucky camping family.

The film opens with highway patrol coppers James Whitmore and Christian Drake happening across a little girl (Sandy Descher) wandering the desert. They find her family’s camper, seemingly torn open; no other survivors but a damned peculiar footprint in the sand.

Unfortunately, it’s New Mexico, and there are sandstorms all the time, so these footprints will appear and disappear through the first act when they’re still trying to figure out what they’re dealing with. The FBI gets involved (because Descher’s missing dad was an agent) in the form of James Arness. Arness is a charisma vacuum. Whitmore’s muted but with a lot of personality and character; Arness is the opposite. When Joan Weldon arrives as his love interest and is just as milquetoast… well, their sparing flirting interactions beg for a giant ant to come in and eat one or both of them.

Weldon’s a government scientist, flown out because of the footprint, sidekick to her father, Edmund Gwenn. They’re both doctors, but she’s a girl; the movie tries to get mileage out of it for so long it’s a surprise in the third act when no one’s giving Weldon shit anymore.

The title comes from Descher’s eventual witness statement—she can’t describe the giant ants; she can just scream, “Them!,” over and over. Got to keep them (no pun) a surprise for the reveal, which happens pretty soon after that scene. For the rest of the movie, whenever someone’s talking about the giant ants, even when it’s different giant ants because there’s a very detailed plot development regarding princess ants on their wedding flights, the actors always emphasize “them” in their deliveries. It’s cute, albeit tiresome.

The film keeps the gang together as it travels from New Mexico to Washington D.C. to California by limiting who knows about the giant ants. Gwenn says you can’t cause a public panic; Arness and Whitmore already know the score, so they’re the perfect flatfoots for the procedural. Lots of interviewing witnesses, not a lot of giant ants.

Except sometimes, there are a lot of giant ants. They can do the life-size monsters, but they can’t do enough of them, especially not after Gwenn’s shown nature documentaries of real ants to frighten everyone at the potential.

But when it’s limited numbers of giant ants, Them! scores better than it seems like it can too. Director Douglas doesn’t do anything particularly impressive, but he does do all right when it’s Whitmore and Arness versus giant ants in the desert. The finale set piece—set in the concrete Los Angeles river bed—is inspired and bigger than expected, but it’s also where Them! runs into technology and budgetary constraints. The desert is where the film’s most successful giant monster thriller action-wise.

It’d probably help if the acting were stronger overall. Whitmore’s good, but once pretty boy Arness shows up, it’s obviously Whitmore’s demoted to sidekick. Gwenn’s solid as the scientist who warns everyone about the atomic future, getting through a bunch of mealy dialogue, but it’s not a particularly good part. Arness and Weldon are tiresome or bad. Onslow Stevens is also bad as the general who oversees the operation, though most of the other supporting cast is fine. Fess Parker works hard in his little scene, a pilot who no one believes has seen giant ants.

The procedural storytelling covers the acting deficiencies, right up until the finish, when the movie rushes the finish and at a reduced scale.

Them!’s fine. It seems like it should’ve been better, but it’s also not unimpressive as is.

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