Them! launched what would be Hollywood’s version of the Godzilla movie, expressing our atomic-age fears via giant bugs and insects instead of rubber lizards. This particular sub-genre has been largely forgotten by our collective movie memory, but Them! remains as an example of 1950s sci-fi done with a style and self-confident maturity that the category often lacks.

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New Mexico state trooper Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and his partner find a small girl wandering alone in the desert. They trace her back to a camping trailer that has been torn apart, her parents missing. In the same area, a general store is ransacked, its owner killed but no money stolen. Peterson leaves his partner to check on the little girl. As any fan of this kind of movie knows, when the star leaves his partner alone, it isn’t going to end well for the poor bastard.

Because the missing father was an FBI agent, the bureau sends agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to help with the investigation. The autopsy on the store owner only deepens the mystery, as does a strange footprint left near the scene. That clue brings in the Drs. Medford, a father/daughter team of entomologists (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon) with a bizarre theory: the killings are the work of radioactively mutated ants the size of automobiles. Peterson and Graham think this is just crazy until they run into a radioactively mutated ant the size of an automobile.

Spit's all that's holding me together right now, too.

No one is going to mistake Them! for an art film or Shakespearean drama, but it manages to separate itself from the pack with sharply drawn characters, deftly executed action sequences and even some wit to the dialog. It’s true that the giant ant effects look almost a bit comical by today’s standards but for the time they were remarkably effective. The film combines these with a uncommonly sure-handed mastery of mood and potent use of sound effects. Any sci-fi movie buff worth his salt would instantly recognize the ants’ undulating signature noise. Every time you hear it, you’re immediately on edge, even before you know what it is.

This movie doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of the era and the genre. Agent Graham is square-jawed and resolute while Trooper Peterson is folksy and plainspoken. The senior Dr. Medford is a bit dottering and tends to drone on a bit, very handy for delivering the necessary exposition. His daughter, Pat, is a bit of break with convention for the time. She never plays the damsel in distress and often has something useful to contribute to the story, cutting to the chase when her father doesn’t. Of course, she also cuts a handsome figure in a pencil skirt and high-heels and she dutifully falls in love with the square-jawed hero.

Naturally, when a movie like this has two heroes and one of them gets the girl, the other one… Well, Mrs. Peterson, we are very sorry for your loss.

While much of the sci-fi from the fifties was disposable schlock, Them! lives on because it was entertaining, professionally-executed schlock that’s still worth taking some time out of your Saturday afternoon to watch again.

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