Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Empire of the Ants (1977) dir. Bert I. Gordon

Logline: Land developer Marilyn Fryser (Joan Collins) carts a group of prospective buyers over to her worthless island property. What remains unclear is if the land's value increases or decreases upon the discovery of a colony of gigantic mutant ants that have taken up residence.

Animal of Choice: Sometimes horse-sized, sometimes elephant-sized mutant ants.

Thinking Ecologically: Over the opening credits, a group of men in radiation suits stand on a ship out at sea and roll barrel upon barrel of radioactive toxic waste into the ocean. One of these barrels washes up on shore, begins to leak, infects ants. There you have it. What's notable about this ecological disaster is how forthright and uncomplicated it is. Generally the disaster or pollution in this sort of film is caused through ignorance or accident, which creates a sense of unease as it forces the viewer to question what sort of unknown pollution could be affecting their own world. Here, the pollution is deliberate and unambiguous, sucking some of the real world dread out of things. We never discover who these polluters are or what their game is. What a loss. (One other small point: it's fitting that a sleazy land developer and her clients end up as the mutant ants' victims, though the film never bothers making this connection as wickedly clever as it might.)

Thinking About Animals: Some opening narration over stock footage announces that ants will be the "next dominant life form of our planet," taking pains to draw parallels between the actions and behaviors of ants and humans. Upon concluding, the narrator asks, rhetorically, "Scary, isn't it?" Maybe, until we actually meet the mutant ants. They're big, hairy, clumsy brutes who mostly scream like insectile banshees and appear to walk on hind legs. For most of the film they're a disappointment: where's the strategy for world domination fueled by the collective mind of the colony, as our narrator promised? We don't see much of this until the end, when the survivors discover that the ants have taken over the minds and wills of the occupants of the island's town through use of their queen's pheromones. The townspeople are dosed with the pheromones weekly, convincing them that they must work to serve and protect the queen (primarily by keeping the colony well fed by way of the local sugar refinery). This is a fun idea, though its execution reeks of lazy 1950s science fiction motion pictures. The ants are never threatening or interesting. The odd ways in which the real-life ant footage is cut into the film makes it so that the ants hardly even ever act like ants. The film's best scene is one in which the survivors stumble across a conflict between some black and red ants in the middle of the forest. It works because, for a moment, we can pretend we're watching a nature documentary and not Empire of the Ants.

Evaluation in Brief: Director Bert I. Gordon's late career is a holdover from the 1950s' science fiction monster fad. During that decade and part of the one following, he developed a dubious reputation for making films about super-sized monsters, like War of the Colossal Beast (1958) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958), with rear projection and trick photography techniques. They were dreadful films, existing solely for their visual gimmicks, and popular appraisal has not treated them kindly (eight of Gordon's films appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000, eclipsing the contributions of any other director). Though still making films throughout the '70s, he hadn't made a giant-sized film since 1965's Village of the Giants, and it appears as if the Animal Terror boom of the latter part of the decade encouraged American International Pictures to give him the opportunity to flex his meager talents once again with The Food of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977), both of which purport to be adaptations of tales by H.G. Wells (they're not). Suffice it to say, Gordon's bag of tricks does not translate particularly well into the context of the late '70s. Empire of the Ants is simplistic, hokey dreck that would perhaps seem charming if it didn't already appear so desperate to connect with a modern movie-going audience by throwing in some halfhearted attempts at sex and gore. It's so out of step in its generic storytelling that it feels as if it's been brought to the '70s in a time machine and left with the instructions that it should-- in order to avoid influencing the future-- inspire the interest of absolutely no one. Not even Joan Collins could save it.

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