Monday, October 4, 2010

Movie vs. Book: Empire of the Ants

The Movie:

Empire of the Ants (1977)

I don’t know which of us decided that doing Empire of the Ants for this month’s book vs. movie was a good idea. I’m pretty sure it was me. But about five minutes into watching it, I remembered…I hate ants. Hate them. I used to live in an apartment cursed by the things. They’d crawl up the wall to my third floor apartment window and chew their way in, finding the one soda can I’d forgotten to rinse out and swarm the place. So I was already convinced before watching this that they were evil, evil buggers.
And still, I could not be disturbed by this movie. Empire of the Ants was produced by AIP (American International Pictures, purveyors of grand schlock in the drive-in era) and directed by Bert I. Gordon (who holds the dubious distinction of having the most films to be featured on “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”) so from that alone I knew this would be grand, craptacular fun.

Joan Collins has lured a horde of folks to a remote area of the Florida Everglades in hopes of duping them into investing in crappy real estate. But, unbeknownst to her or anyone else, the area is overrun by ants. Not just any ants, but ants grown to monstrous size due to leaking nuclear waste that had been dumped in the water. Like any grand drama, this movie is divided into three acts: the first, setting up the characters and making enough of them out to be putzes so we root for the ants to kill them. Second act, they run from (sometimes unsuccessfully) said ants. The third act does mix things up a little bit when they finally reach the safety of a town, only to find the townsfolk under the enslaving spell of the queen ant.

But really, who cares about the plot? We’re watching this for the giant ant action! Bert I. Gordon is the go-to guy for big animals (he also directed the great adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “Food of the Gods” where Marjoe Gortner gets attacked by a giant rubber chicken). For this, he used rubber ants for the close-up attacks, but for the swarming scenes, one would expect Harryhausen-esque stop motion. But Gordon went one step further—he filmed real ants crawling over miniatures (think the bug version of Night of the Lepus). One absolutely fabulous scene must have been filmed with a glass wall enclosing the ants, because they started to crawl up it. The glass is not visible in the finished film, so we get treated to the occasional ant crawling up into the sky.

God, I had fun watching this movie. While he might be a shlockmeister, Gordon knew how to rile up his audience to, at times, root for the people to defeat the big bugs and, at times, root for the bugs to defeat the putzes. As if he could predict the audience expectations, Gordon delivered in every one of them.

Sure, I could discuss some subtle subtext about polluting the environment, or the dangers of conformity, but, really folks, this is a giant ant movie! If I go any deeper than that I risk reading too much into it, and that would kill the fun of it all.

As an added bonus, the intro is done in mock nature program style, where, while watching ants do their normal thing, we are informed by a very knowledgeable-sounding voice-over (of course it’s knowledgeable—it has a British accent!) that ants are superior to man because of their strength and ruthlessness. It looked straight from one of my favorite bug documentaries, The Hellstrom Chronicles. It didn’t add much to the movie, but it made me smile.

Empire of the Ants is not a great movie. It will never be taught in film class, studied in academic texts, or profiled at an art film festival. But it never meant to be. It meant to be a giant ant movie, and on that level, it succeeded.

On a side note, it makes me vaguely sad to know we now have generations that will grow up and not have the opportunity to wax nostalgic about crappy special effects. Sure, their movies might look prettier, but I think they’re missing out on a strange affection for watching ants crawl up a sky.




H.G. Wells wrote many classic science fiction and horror stories… The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau… and a number of “lesser” pieces which have more or less been forgotten by the casual reader. Among those lesser pieces is the short story The Empire of the Ants.

The piece is included in many of the collections of Wells’ short fiction, and deservedly so. It is a nicely understated work detailing an encounter between a boat crew and a swarm of ants; the meeting goes poorly for the humans when it becomes apparent that the ants have developed intelligence. Whether a group mind or individual thoughts are in place is never developed, nor are the mechanics of intellectual growth. Wells merely works with the possibility as an outgrowth of evolutionary theory and posits a result… and the result has dire implications for the human race. It’s a exemplary short story, although it does tend to lack long-term resonance for me.

Four stars out of five.


EMPIRE OF THE ANTS by Lindsay West, based on the movie by Bert I. Gordon

The movie was inspired more by the title of the H.G. Wells short story than by the content of the tale. The novelization, however, tries hard to stick to the script of the film.

That is not to say the book doesn't venture into new territory. It does. It makes you wish it hadn't, but it does.

This novelization reads as if the author were trying to reproduce the movie in the voice of Hunter S. Thompson speaking to twelve year olds. It bounces between forced "hipness" and mundane exposition. Worse yet, the one true innovation it holds over the movie is painfully bad: the reader is made privy to the thoughts of the giant ants.

An example: "Queen mother, each hour magnifies our gratitude to thee. Thou has given us manna to make us grow bigger and stronger than our ancient enemy. And as our bodies have grown, so have grown our brains. The two-legged beast sees our antennae twitching, and cannot read out thoughts. We can read this. And we will eat him. We will devour his very thoughts. We will sup on the arrogance that has let him crush us with his heel through the centuries. We will quaff his soul. To thy greater glory, Queen Mother."

Really? You've got ants thinking in "Thee" and "Thou", talking about quaffing souls, and they haven't figured out the terms "human", "man" or "woman" yet? For that matter....

... Oh, hell. Forget "for that matter." This is a complete piece of crap of a book, novelization or not. It is, however, mercifully short, and so completely terrible that it may be the perfect reading when you've got some alcohol in your system and you can't find an intentional humor book.

One star out of Five.