Them! is one of those fascinating movies in movie history whose influence on future films has perhaps overshadowed how good the movie itself actually is. And that’s a shame. While it’s important in kicking off the era of giant-bug movies and influencing movies decades later like Aliens and Starships Troopers, it’s also very much worth considering on its own. Even if no one had ever made a big bug movie again, it’s still a solid giant monster movie with a lot to recommend it.
We open with a little girl, walking stone-faced in shock down a road in a New Mexico desert, who is found by two highway patrolman. They find the trailer she came from, torn apart from the outside. So is the grocery store down the road, and the proprietor’s dead and slashed to hell. Naturally, they find out that this is due to giant ants who were mutated by the Trinity atomic test from nine years earlier and the cops, army and a pair of myrmecologists have to figure out how to stop them from spreading and threatening humanity.
Really, you’re not watching this movie especially for the characters; they’re essentially exposition dumps to get us to the next big giant ant scene. James Arness and James Whitmore are doing what they can with their classic monster-movie “serious white guys saving the world” roles, but they’re pretty much your standard cardboard cutouts. Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon have better material to work with as the father-and-daughter myrmecologists; in particular, it’s nice that Weldon never has to play the damsel in distress. She’s there to save the day, not be saved, and doesn’t have any nonsense about suddenly being sympathetic to the poor misunderstood ants. There’s a lot of screaming women in ‘50s genre movies and she sure as hell isn’t one. Except for a moment of someone admiring her legs as she gets off a military plane, she doesn’t have to deal with any dumb romantic plot, which is nice.
What we’re really here for is fighting bugs, and hoo boy does this movie delivers that in spades. There’s gun battles! Phosphorus bazookas! Cyanide gas! Clearing out tunnels with flamethrowers! This is the template that giant bug movies have been following for decades and it’s a damn good template to follow. It doesn’t hurt at all that, even 65 years on, the bug puppets are still pretty damn effective; they don’t do much more than move and wave their antennae around and occasionally pincer someone, but that’s enough when you’re judicious about their screen time and can cheat with things like “oh they’re behind some beams so can’t run at us, or they’re trapped in that pit.” They look pretty cool, are menacing in their size and actually look pretty badass even when they’re lit on fire. (I can see a version of this movie being done in CGI, but this is one of those times when I think you can safely say their limited mobility is part of the charm.)
Those bug chases, first under the desert of New Mexico and then in the sewers of Los Angeles (specifically, in the runoff from the Los Angeles River) are where the real legacy of this movie lies. Soldiers and scientists, filing into those cramped and dark corridors armed with weapons but occasionally outnumbered and outflanked in enemy territory; this is where we get the climax of Aliens, or the climatic bug hunt of Starship Troopers. It is still effective after all this time (and I’m especially glad their plans to film the movie in 3D and color fell through when the camera broke; this is much more effective in black and white). The movie isn’t perfect, due to a lot of exposition time, but all of that is very worth getting through to get to the ant hunts.