H. G. Wells Wouldn't Be Proud
H.G. Wells is considered by many to be the literary pioneer of the science fiction fantasy genre. The fortunate timing of Wells' sci-fi imagination hitting the scene in the early years of filmmaking led to the big screen conversion of many of his writings. However, one unfortunate piece of timing was writer/director Bert I. Gordon acquiring the Wells short story, Empire of the Ants, before anyone else.
Bearing very little resemblance to the short story – other than the pesky titular insect– Empire of the Ants fails on almost every level of filmmaking, even considering the disclaimer that the film falls within the extremely forgiving genre of "creature features." Bad acting, poor screenwriting, choppy editing, and amateur dialogue are attributes that, when taken advantage of, can add a raffish charm to films like this. Just watch The Legend of Boggy Creek if you don't believe me. But Gordon's inept filmmaking and his bent on being taken seriously suck all the life and campy attraction from Empire of the Ants.
The film opens with documentary-like footage of ants shredding a leaf and carrying the remains to their nests. Voice-over narration adds, "We must learn to treat the ant with respect, for it may well be the next dominant life form," and "Ants have a very advanced and complex means of communication using pheromones." Rather than adding a sense of foreboding doom to the story, this opening made me feel like I was about to watch an episode of Marty Stouffer's Wild America.
We meet a much younger but still bellicose Joan Collins, as Florida land developer Marilyn Fryer. She runs a sleazy real estate scam accompanied by assistant Charlie Pearson (Edward Power) and boat captain Dan Stokely (Robert Lansing). They drag unsuspecting investors into the swamps of Florida, hoping to sell them a lot in the yet-to-be-developed Dreamland Shores community. Unbeknownst to them, barrels of leaking radioactive waste have washed ashore, becoming food for the local insect population. Gigantic ants, the size of humans, now prowl the outskirts of the camera's field of view. Of course, our seemingly innocent land prospectors turn up missing one by one, as they fall prey to the ants that actually seem kind of cute but emit a high-pitched, scream-like shrill.
I'll normally forgive special effects in cheap monster movies. But this film was made in 1977, the same year Star Wars set a new standard for cinematic special effects. Honestly, I've seen better effects in similar movies made in the 1950s! We only get two views of the ants as they attack the humans. In close-ups, the giant ants are clearly puppets, but the camera shakes so violently it not only becomes nauseating but also obvious that to steady the camera would be to reveal the shoddily-made doll-on-a-stick. The other view is always a long shot of rear-projected images of ants between two sheets of glass superimposed over the action, but never coming anywhere close to looking like they exist on the same plane as their human prey.
While poor special effects can be overcome by an interesting concept or even by unique dialogue, it's clear that with Empire of the Ants, Gordon is practicing his craft several decades too late. Cheap special effects and nonexistent horror in a "horror" movie make for one boring waste of celluloid. Only during the last 20 minutes or so does the story actually resemble anything sinister or in the least bit scary. With the town's secret revelation, the filmmakers were going for something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Soylent Green. But they ended up with a bad cross between Gilligan's Island and Land of the Lost.
(Distributed by MGM Home Video. Not rated by the MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.