You know, this film really is like watching a moment in cinematic history. Not that Them! is a great recording of historic events or life in 1954, even without the giant ants it’d be bad at that, but you can see where inspirations for horror films and video games have come from. To get the most obvious examples out of the way - you remember It came from Red Alert in C&CRA2 and Greyditch in Fallout 3? Yeah, both of those were intentional references to this.
If the poster hasn’t given it away yet, Them! is about giant ants attacking people during the Cold War. At about when Godzilla was marching his way across Tokyo for the first time, the USA put out this film as both a giant monster flick and an anti-nuclear testing message. Having gone unnoticed by everyone, no we never learn quite how, radioactive colonies of ants mutated to the size of semi-trucks have begun sprouting up in in New Mexico to threaten isolated settlements.
Already from this beginning description you can probably see one eventual horror trend - The monsters themselves don’t appear until a good way into the film. Much of the beginning is instead spent building up the mystery behind them, showing the devastation they have caused, even a few of their victims. While it might not have been the first film to do this, there are arguably earlier examples, it was the first to do this so effectively. Creating a strong sense of menace before introducing them at the end of the first act. Admittedly the “mystery” in question was ruined by all the promotional posters which seemed to broadcast “HEY THIS FILM HAS BIG ANTS!” as loudly as possible. If this sounds familiar it might be because you’ve seen Jaws, which did the same thing due to limits on the animatronics showed the creature’s results rather than the shark itself for most of the film. The ants were probably not shown for a similar reasons, if a great white was difficult can you imagine trying to animate multi-limbed drones?
Speaking of the ants themselves, the movie is often discussed in relation to James Cameron’s Aliens because of them. While textbooks usually mention Them! as an example of 1950s radioactive monsters or in one case trying to use it as a Freudian example of anal birthing, page 363 Film Genre Reader III, it’s often considered where Cameron got a lot of his ideas from. If you look at the scenes within the hives you can often see easy comparisons between the two. Sickly organic walls and tunnels making up the environments; dimly lit, with prowling drones lurking in the shadows and with similarly cylindrical sacks of eggs littering the ground. There are differences between the environments certainly, this one definitely lacks H.R. Giger’s unique techno-organic look but you can see where the designs crossover with one another. Hell, even without that you could probably just look at the script to see where one film took inspiration from the other. For example Them! features:
- A traumatised small girl who survived when her parents were killed by the monsters.
- A queen creature laying its eggs in a secret chamber, with one hive located within a major population area.
- Marines with flamethrowers and heavy equipment having to navigate the hives as they investigate each one.
Seeing this stuff is half the fun of watching it after all, but how well does it stand up if you’re watching it without thinking about those things? Well, yes and no. The film was never quite so campy that it deserved the MST3K treatment but the animatronic ants haven’t aged well. It’s their lack of mobility and the furry antennae which really makes them look ridiculous, the times when they’re best used is when they’re mostly out of shot. Sometimes they’re passable but that’s only when the camera is filming around them specifically rather than the actors to make them look mobile, something which unfortunately happens only a couple of times.
Atop of this it does have the tendency to drag during the second act and has a much weaker second half. The acting is good all around, usually enough to carry the film at the worst of times which helps to offset this and it does have some of the greatest closing lines in film history. The writing is also fairly strong for its time. Showing more logic than you’d get out of most monster films and going out of the way to cover its own plot holes more than once such as when the ants board a cargo ship.
If you were able to enjoy other classics from this era like Invasion of the Body Snatchers you’ll get a kick out of watching it at least once. Otherwise look this up if you’re interested in the development of the horror genre at the beginning of its progressive slide from fantasy towards science fiction.