Reign Over the Earth

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We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true – ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beasts shall reign over the earth.’

-Them! (1954)

In 1954, the spectre of nuclear annihilation haunted the minds of cinema-goers. Many of the films of the period are pervaded by an existential unease, and none more so than Gordon Douglas’ seminal ‘big bug’ feature, Them! 

One of the first nuclear monster films, Them! spoke directly to the anxieties of the time. Radiation + innocuous wildlife = national threat. A new folk horror, arising from a distinctly modern set of fears. But instead of something from outside imposing itself on reality, the monster is of man’s own making – and worse, unintentional.

The film has always been one of my favourites. Like Godzilla, released the same year, the ants are kept out of sight for a good portion of the film. They’re a barely glimpsed force, seen out of the corner of the eye or heard. The sound is the worst of it – the shrill prickle of noise, an insect hum, echoing across the lonely desert landscape. A signal that all is not well, and a warning to the curious.

Too, the blunt, factual way the story unfolds makes for greater unease. In places, it could almost be an episode of Dragnet, as the diverse characters seek to unravel the mystery. When they at last discover the true nature of the threat facing them, things spin rapidly into overdrive.

The ants are brute children of Progress, much like Frankenstein’s creation. Unlike Karloff’s monster, however, the ants are not simply at odds with the world – they threaten to reshape it. To make it a place where they, and not mankind, have sole dominion. Heedless of all laws or potency, they flourish in the empty places, and spread where they will, all without man’s knowledge. The assumption of insignificance lends them a hideous strength.

While the film has many of the hallmarks of a disaster film, there’s a darker implication, a hint that there’s been a cosmic reshuffling – man is no longer in control. The ants are not simply symbolic of nuclear disaster, but of the loss of certainty that accompanied the splitting of the atom.

The universe is not as we thought it was, and we will pay for that assumption. The little things, the things unnoticed, are almost our downfall. Only happenstance and diligence prevents a greater tragedy.

There is an almost Lovecraftian cosmicism to the story. Humanity is rendered insignificant by a force seemingly beyond comprehension, their bastions of authority made all but impotent. The ants are utterly alien, and the traditional defences of innocence and ignorance are useless against them. They walk where they will, shadow-shapes stalking a monochrome desert.

Worse, as they spread, the world is irrevocably changed in their wake. When a stake is thrust through Dracula’s heart, normalcy returns. But even after their inevitable immolation, the ants leave the world in disorder. The atomic genie has been let out of the bottle, and nothing will ever be the same. If ants can become giants, can spiders? Can men? What new horrors stir, in the shadow of atomic fire?

What rough beast, its hour come around at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.

-Them! (1954)