26 September 1999 | BrianG
They don't get much better than this
This is the granddaddy of 'em all, the film that pretty much started giant bug genre of sci-fi films and spawned countless imitators, none of which are remotely as good as this one. This movie has pretty much everything going for it: a literate, atmospheric, extremely well-written script for what is essentially a B picture (although Warner Brothers put a substantial amount of cash into it)l outstanding acting jobs by everyone from the leads on down to the extras; razor-sharp direction by an old pro, Gordon Douglas (by far his best film; nothing he did before or since was anywhere near as good); a combination of visual and sound effects guaranteed to creep you out (the scene where James Whitmore's partner goes outside the wrecked store to investigate the strange noises he hears is among the scariest things you'll ever see). Also, the characters are believable; they act like you know people would act in the same situation. Edmund Gwenn isn't the typical befuddled scientist you see in these films; he may be a tad distracted at times, but he gets down to business when the situation calls for it. Joan Weldon, his daughter, isn't just just a pretty face for the leads to fight over; she's every bit as much a scientist as her father, and she lets that fact be known right away. There's another level of this film that works well, too; comedy. Not the slapstick kind, or the stereotypical dumb cop or cook or crew member (usually from Brooklyn) that pops up in these films, but there are several lighter moments in the film that really work. Everyone remembers the wonderful Olin Howlin, the guy in the drunk tank who sings "Make me a sergeant in charge of the booze!", but there are several other segements that are equally as lighthearted; the great Dub Taylor playing a railroad detective suspected of stealing a load of sugar from a railroad car that the ants have actually done ("You think I stole that sugar? When was the last time you busted a ring of sugar thieves? You ever heard of a market for hot sugar?") and another scene in the drunk ward where a patient looks at the army major accompanying Arness and Whitmore and says, "I wanna get out of here, general, but I ain't gonna join the army to do it!" The special effects are first-rate but do not overwhelm the story, as is all too common in many of today's action films (that is, when there actually IS a story). There are some truly terrifying scenes (the one where the ants, who have hidden in the hold of a cargo ship at sea, attack and slaughter the crew), and I liked the fact that the ants aren't invulnerable--they CAN be killed (it just takes a lot more effort)--and also that they actually act like ants. All they're doing is just what real ants would actually do--which makes things even scarier, given that we know how single-minded and vicious real ants can actually be.
All in all, this is a trailblazing film that attempts to work on several levels--as a sci-fi film, as a mystery, as an action film--and succeeds admirably in every one.