Monday, October 08, 2007

Empire of the Ants

(1977) ***1/2
Okay, this is more like it: an ant movie that's actually about ants.
The film opens with a National Geographic style video lecture on the tiny creatures. We're told by a narrator that ants are highly organized and regimented. The narrator places great emphasis on the complete obedience of the subordinate ants through the queen ant's use of pheromones.
Next we witness an anonymously evil pair of waste workers dumping barrels of toxic sludge into the Atlantic. One of the barrels washes ashore, leaks onto the sand and some ants have a party in the leakage. Let's ignore the fact that toxic waste would more likely melt the ants than have any other effect. All this happens during the opening credits. When we next see the toxic waste barrel after the credits, it's brown with rust, having been lying there for what may be weeks.
Meanwhile, Joan Collins leads a traveling group of 10 real estate deal vacationers and 2 employees to visit some bunk Florida coast property. They have to visit the site by yacht because the site is separated from the nearest town by 12 miles of swampland. These early scenes are rather well done. The performances are all fairly sound, even among the tiny-bit players. Also, I liked the way all of the characters refer to each other by first name. They've had a couple hours on the boat to get to know each other and this small touch gives the film a nice, familiar background.
The friendliness fades soon after the yacht reaches shore. Some of the characters are fending off some personal demons: one's an alcoholic, one's a serial chippy, one just got fired from her long term job, one's a married lothario. They've all come down to Florida to either redeem their lives with some new property and a fresh start, or just take advantage of the free trip to hide in their vices for a while longer.
While they're schmoozing on the beach, they're being spied on. We watch through ant-vision as some of the characters venture off on their own. It's through ant-vision we see the first couple devoured by what are now people-sized ants. Discovering the bodies and hounded by the mega-ants, the remaining passengers haul ass through the trees to get to civilization.
[SPOILER ALERT] The ones who make it there are met with a very unpleasant surprise. In a groovy twist, the ants have already taken control of the nearest town. On a weekly basis, servile townspeople shepherd each other into the town's sugar refinery where they're gassed with pheromones by an enormous queen ant.
The script is reasonably mature and contains some compelling moments. [SPOILER ALERT] One I particularly liked comes towards the end when Dan, the pilot of the yacht, tries to kill the queen ant. The town sheriff (whose responsibility now is to act like everything's normal while making sure every one in town gets their pheromone dose on time) witnesses the attack and cries, "you can't!" his pheromone addled mind unable to comprehend why anyone would have any reason to harm such a benevolent leader.
The movie's handicap is its age --- the visual effects are rather quaint. The giant ant effect is achieved in wider angle shots by splitting the screen and superimposing real ants over miniature sets. This actually works out okay in a handful of shots in which the dividing line between life-size and miniature is outdoors and doesn't look so contrived. It gets ruined on occasion when one of the ants climbs up the "sky" in the background.
In interactive shots, the effect is achieved through the use of large, hairy ant dummies. The dummies themselves are pretty fun looking, but they obviously can't move on their own and their artificiality is masked with shaky-cam. I may have been less fooled seeing them without the shaky cam, but at least I'd have been spared the dizziness.
It's a pretty enjoyable movie, when all's said and done, although you wouldn't have heard it from Joan Collins. According to IMDb, Collins considers this to be her worst ever acting experience. Then again, this is the same woman who took a role in The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas as a character named "Pearl Slaghoople," so maybe she was just pissed about having to run in the mud.


DCD said...

Excellent! I feel like successful monster movies are kind of hard to come by. Of course you have your old Japanese rubber costume ones that could be considered classics, but the more modern day takes don't always seem to work.

I'mnotMarcbutmyboyfriendis said...

when the sheriff cries, "you can't!" i was reminded of will ferrell. i don't mean this in any kind of denigrating way. the line and the moment need a really simple, childish, desperate delivery. that's kind of the hallmark of a good will ferrell role -- simple and childish. this guy totally nails it.