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Empire Of The Ants
(1977)

Director: Bert I. Gordon
Cast:
Joan Collins, Robert Lansing, John David Carson


When I was about twelve years old, my grade school teacher forced me and my classmates to take part in a musical school play concerning monsters. The songs in the play had such witty lyrics like, "Monsters! Monsters! Creepy crawly crud! / When they find you, hang on to your blood!" Though I thought even as a kind that the songs and the entire play were moronically written, at the same time I had to admit that the playwright at least had the correct idea that the subject of monsters could appeal to the young and old. After all, the idea of monsters gets into our heads first when we are extremely young, when we fear that there is something in our closet or under our bed at night. Maybe we don't know what exactly is there... but our fear makes it a real threat to ourselves. When we get older, those bedtime monsters fade away, but even as adults, monsters still have a lot of appeal to us. Mostly it's with the fiction that we devour - sometimes it's with books, sometimes with television, but more often than not, our monster interest is satisfied with motion pictures. Just take a look at movies right now, and you'll see a lot of movies being churned out concerning one type of monster - zombies. Zombie movies have become very popular over the past few years, which leads to the question as to why this is. Well, I think that in this age of terrorism and work place shootings, it seems like the society that we live in is just inches away from being dealt a fatal blow by one means or another, a blow that could collapse society as we know it. And many zombie movies concern the collapse of society as we know it, with survivors trying to survive in a much different world.

Thinking about why zombies are so popular with adult movie viewers today, one can see why a lot of different kinds of monsters have given adults a creepy fascination over the decades or centuries. Before there were motion pictures, in certain parts of the world adults were afraid of being pounced upon by werewolves or vampires. Examining the living situation of these adults, one can soon deduce why there were such fears of such creatures then but not now. These adults lived in somewhat isolated areas of the world, with knowledge and education back then not as well spread as it is today in this Internet age. There is one interesting part of our past when there were tales of a certain kind of monster that were much more popular back then than they are today, and that is the giant creature movie, creatures that were once harmless animals but due to man's interferance grew up to gigantic size and become homicidal. Today these movies are kind of old hat, popping up on the SyFy cable network on a regular basis, but back in the 1950s, these movies had a much bigger impact on the consciousness of moviegoers. Why did these movies hit home with audiences way back then? Well, you have to remember the environment back then. Atomic power was still in its infancy, and radiation (often the cause of gigantic monsters in movies) seemed like a mysterious thing with power that we might not be able to control. Also, Russia, America's big rival at the time, had the bomb just like America, and it seemed that atomic warfare could break out at any time. Small wonder then that movies concerning gigantic animals made by atomic radiation were so popular, because they tapped into people's fears of what could end the world at any moment.

But like practically all fads, the craze for movies with gigantic homicidal creatures spawned by radiation died out. For decades afterwards, filmgoers were treated with new examples of the genre only on occasion. That's where Empire Of The Ants comes in, and it's an oddity for Empire Of The Antsseveral reasons. It was released in the latter half of the 1970s, where movies of this nature were really rare. So this alone made it stick out like a sore thumb at the time of its release, especially since other movies at the time like Star Wars were instantly rewriting Hollywood. Another reason for its unusual nature is that in several aspects, the movie was not a real update of what was witnessed in monster movies of the 1950s, which also made the movie come across as old fashioned at the time. Just why I will explain shortly, but first a plot synopsis. The events of the movie take place on an island off the coast of Florida. On that island, a shady real estate agent by the name of Marilyn Fryser (Collins, Dynasty) is preparing to show off some property on the island that's secretly without any value to some prospective land buyers. But Marilyn soon finds out there's something more pressing than the possibility of her con job being found out, and the clients find out at the same time that there's something more pressing than deciding whether or not to buy property. Earlier in the movie, several barrels of radioactive waste were dumped by a disposal team in the ocean near the island, and one of the barrels washed up on the shore of the island. The washed up barrel was leaking waste, and some ants crawled all over the radioactive liquid. You guessed what happens - the contaminated ants quickly grow to a gigantic size, and start to terrorize Marilyn and her clients, destroying the group's boat in the process. Cut off from getting to the mainland, the group decides that their only choice is to go across the island through the nearby swamp in order to get to the mainland and civilization. But Marilyn and the others soon discover just how cunning the ants are, enough that even getting to the town may not save them from danger.

Years ago, when I reviewed the monster movie A*P*E, I talked about a certain kind of badness found in certain bad movies, badness that wasn't merely the audience finding annoyance or hilarity with the bad movie in question. The badness I talked about was the kind where the audience is simply embarrassed by what they see, and they feel pity for the people involved in making the movie. While Empire Of The Ants isn't as embarrassing to watch as A*P*E, there are parts of the movie that had me shaking my head in disbelief and had me feeling pity towards some of the movie's participants. Specifically, I am talking about the people behind the movie's so-called special effects, one of the chief culprits being director Bert I. Gordon, who's credited with providing the movie's visual effects. To put it bluntly, the special effects in the movie are unbelievably bad. Gordon uses a couple of different ways to portray the gigantic ants. Most of the time he uses the technique of photographing real ants in extreme close-up, and adding this footage to footage of the human actors and their surroundings. This technique never looks the least bit convincing for several reasons. For one thing, the ant footage often doesn't match the footage of the human actors and their surroundings - the ant footage is slightly out of focus and the colors look washed out. Other times the ants are so badly superimposed that they look like painted black blobs and lack detail. There are also a few times when the ants crawl on the sides of the glass container they were photographed in, so it looks like they are in a zero gravity environment, floating in mid-air. The other way the gigantic ants are portrayed are with gigantic full scale constructed front halves, with puppeteers barely off camera manipulating them. They look extremely stiff and artificial, which might explain why every time one of these creations is on screen, the cameraman madly whips the camera every which way in a desperate attempt to not allow the audience to get a good look at them. It doesn't work.

I have a good idea what some people reading this may be saying at this point. They are probably saying something like, "Why couldn't you have fun with these poor special effects? Why not laugh and be entertained by their pathetic quality instead of being annoyed by them?" Believe me, I wish I could. In other circumstances, I am sure I could. If Empire Of The Ants had been made in the '50s, I could have laughed at the effects, because filmmakers were more naive and had less technology to their disposal. So their pathetic attempts would be more palatable, enough that I might have even accepted them. But this movie was made two decades later, when people were more sophisticated and had more resources. And I don't think that a low budget is any excuse - I've seen superior effects in equally cheap films of this era. Maybe if the movie's surrounding material was insane like in movies such as Troll 2, I could have laughed at the effects. But as it is, Bert I. Gordon should be downright embarrassed by his special effects here, though he can also be blamed for many of the other shortcomings of the movie, which are simply bad without being unintentionally funny. For starters, I noticed that more often than not he seemed to have a very lazy attitude towards this project. Several times I noticed gross continuity errors, among them the real estate agency's boat that in some shots is tied up to the island's dock and in other shots is not there, or when the fleeing characters all get dunked into the island swamp's dirty water, and then in the next scene their clothes are dry and reasonably clean. Gordon's seemingly I-don't-care attitude extends to even the movie's basic technical requirements, such as some dialogue that is poorly recorded, apparently not given a looping in the movie's post-production phase. The movie not only sounds dreary, but also looks dreary, with depressing photography that does nothing to add a spark to whatever was happening on the screen at any moment.

Actually, there is not as much happening on the screen as you might think. While watching the movie, several times I was struck by the fact that the movie at times seemed very reluctant to build tension. Director Gordon is credited with writing the movie's story, so he seems to blame for the long periods when pretty much nothing of significance is happening. It takes almost a third of the movie before the ants reveal themselves, subsequently there is a lengthy slog in the island's swamp where there are long portions with the gigantic ants off of the screen, and when the survivors manage to reach civilization, a considerable amount of time goes by before the giant ants reappear. But there is a bigger reason why I wasn't the least bit spooked or involved with what was going on in Empire Of The Ants, and that reason is that the characters of the movie are not particularly compelling. I never sympathized with their plight for various reasons, including but not limited to not learning all of their names, that for the most part they acted and spoke alike, and that they seemed downright stupid at times. Long before the end, I was wishing they would promptly be all knocked off or simply succeed in escaping so the movie would end right there. The biggest surprise with the characters is that even Joan Collins' character is underwhelming. There is some promise in the beginning when her Marilyn Fryser character shows a sarcastic and devious spirit, but as soon as the ants come into the picture, she acts like all the other women characters in the movie, crying and acting weak and helpless - and not in a particularly energetic or enthusiastic manner. Obviously something is very wrong when someone like Joan Collins can't chew the scenery, and looking at the rest of the movie makes it clear why Collins was probably wishing she was somewhere else.

(Posted October 21, 2016)

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See also: Dogs, Mosquito, Ticks

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