Them! ★★½

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 14: Cold War Sci-Fi

Like I mentioned yesterday, the 1950s is a particularly good time to use the era's science-fiction projects as a way of examining the hopes and fears of American society in general, with the irony being that the most popular books of those times were largely pushing an optimistic agenda that encouraged people's hopes (one of the reasons this period is known as the "Silver Age" of sci-fi), while the most popular movies were almost exclusively exploiting people's fears about everything that could go wrong. As we saw yesterday in The Day The Earth Stood Still, for example, one of those big fears was that the burgeoning "space race" (which in reality was nothing more than an extension of the "cold war" between the US and the Soviet Union) was going to lead to a escalation of inter-nation militaristic hostility that would eventually culminate in a global apocalypse (which, to remind you, nearly did actually happen less than a decade later); but another big fear at the time was that the unproven long-term ramifications of "nuclear energy," which after World War Two was suddenly being promoted not as a doomsday weapon but as a cheap and safe way to power the nation's electrical grid, was eventually going to produce a series of biological mutations we weren't expecting, and lead to apocalypse anyway without a single shot being fired. It's important to remember, after all, that even by 1950 there were still huge sections of the American rural countryside that didn't have electricity; for one good example, my dad was born in 1942 in a small town in southeastern Missouri, and he can still recall periods in his childhood where not a single person in his neighborhood had electricity or indoor plumbing. It was a legitimate question as to how America was going to afford to generate all that extra electricity that was needed for a truly national power grid; and proponents of nuclear energy were heavily pushing for that option in those years, even as our collective fears about the unproven technology manifested themselves in a series of Freudian body-horror films about nature run amok.

1954's Them! was the first such mutation-phobic movie, followed quickly by dozens of others, so many that the trope eventually became a genre unto itself and one of the lasting legacies of '50s cinema in general. Directed by journeyman Gordon Douglas (a studio gun-for-hire who helmed everything in his long career from "Our Gang" shorts to the civil-rights drama They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!), it's also now considered one of the best of the '50s "nuclear monster" films; and indeed, after watching it myself now, I can attest that the claustrophobic hunt for the creatures in the sewers under Los Angeles that marks the film's climax is particularly well-done, a legitimately tense action sequence that you often don't see in other laugh-a-minute cheesefests from this period of film history. But that said, you still can't deny that this is a 1950s low-budget black-and-white cheapie genre flick about twenty-foot-high killer ants, terrorizing a group of innocents in the American Southwest who wear full Eisenhower formal suits even in the middle of the desert, a film that was originally supposed to be in color but whose producers pulled the plug at the last minute literally because they considered it too cheesy to warrant the extra expense; so as such, you really have to take this movie with a pound of salt, really only enjoyable anymore as a groan-inducing midnight movie that can only be watched ironically, versus for example the French New Wave films we looked at last week, being made in these same exact years but that still stand up as legitimate works of art to this day. Although I'm glad to finally have this classic creature feature off my bucket list, there's not really that much to say about it from an analytical or critical standpoint, one of the titles to skip if you're looking to only sample a handful of Cold War-era science-fiction films.

Coming tomorrow, though, one of the '50s creature features to definitely have on your list -- 1954's original Japanese Godzilla, which now that I've watched it I realize is a much more horrific and harrowing film than the two dozen cheesy sequels it eventually inspired. But more about Hiroshima, American imperialism, and war exploitation films on Wednesday!

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