Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the fourth distinct film titled simply Godzilla continues the grand tradition of movies in which the uncertain march of potentially dangerous science is embodied in the form of some kind of outrageous monster. As Godzilla'd out as this blog has no doubt become, I thought it was appropriate for one last hurrah with the genre, going all the way back to the same year that the original Japanese Godzilla premiered.

In the immediate wake of 1953's Godzilla, which adopted the perspective of a country that, uniquely in the whole world, was on the receiving end of atomic weaponry: the atomic monster as an unstoppable force that leaves unfathomable destruction and death behind it, only defeated by the invention of an even worse perversion of science than the atom bomb itself. The other, in the United States, was Them! - that's an obligatory exclamation point, you'll note - is just as obviously from the perspective of that country that made and launched those attacks against Japan in the first place. It is horrified and cautious about the unintended consequences of nuclear weapons, and by no means triumphalist about Scientific Progress (but then, American genre films in the '50s probably demonstrate a more pervasive hatred and mistrust of scientists and science than any other form of drama in any other era), but it's easy to see the difference between the films. Godzilla levels Tokyo and tuns it into a smoking ruin. They! are only able to severely inconvenience the residents of Los Angeles.

That sounds dismissive, but in truth, Them! is quite damn good. Easily the best of the giant insect movies that were so common in the '50s (a genre it largely created), which again sounds dismissive. The problem, perhaps, is that Them! comes from a genre and a time frame when even being moderately decent would have been an impressive success; there are no comparisons to be made that could really point to how strong it is as a movie qua movies. It had Oscar-nominated effects work, for God's sake (this was before visual and sound effects were given separate awards). How many '50s B-thrillers can make that kind of claim? But then, not many B-thrillers were made by a studios as well-heeled as Warner Bros. (also behind
Of course, it's still a really fine giant ant thriller. It was not a massively well-appointed production, but there was still plenty of time and money spent making the giant robotic ants look as... well, not realistic. But in their fanciful, abstract way, they're gorgeous props with an impressive range of articulation and movement, making for genuinely impressive antagonists for the humans in the cast. And after being downgraded from a widescreen, 3-D color spectacle, the full-frame black-and-white cinematography by Sid Hickox is rich and full of smart lighting and framing: the bleached-out New Mexico desert (played by the bleached-out California desert) is foreboding and bleak, while the ants' lairs are wonderfully gloomy and threatening, with the low light having the added benefit of keeping the monsters out of situations where full illumination might call attention to their technical shortcomings.

In short, director Gordon Douglas was taking all of this extremely seriously, exploring the subject with the full gravity of its horror and drawing out some surprisingly stable and earnest performances. Gwenn has a bit of comic relief business here and there (there's a little routine involving military radio etiquette that I find genuinely funny), but otherwise everyone is encouraged to behave as a normal person would under the circumstances: it's not a character-driven giant ant movie, exactly, but it's a movie where the naturalism of the acting and the steadfast refusal to allow even a drop of campiness to infect the proceedings serve to make the giant ants seem like a real and legitimate danger (the film even manages to sell what should, be rights, be a corny sequence with a grieving mother). And that is no small victory, nor a small part of why Them! is able to make the impact it does. From the little girl being plunged back into her memories and screaming "Them!" with all her might, to the sweaty tension exuded by the heroes as they crawl around the Los Angeles storm drains hunting for monsters, Them! honestly cares about what kind of fears and other emotions its loopy scenario would entail, and that invites us to believe in its objectively absurd notions without any kind of good sense holding us back. For all that it ends up suggesting that the might of the U.S. military will always save the day, and for all that there's never really the possibility of Godzilla-style widespread devastation, the film is shockingly sincere in its expression of its concept and themes, and that gives it a potency that no other giant bug picture ever came close to achieving. In it's highly circumscribed, genre-based way, this is an outright masterpiece.