It's no Picnic!
When I was accepted as a Judge for DVD erdict, I was hopeful that someday I could review some of my favorite movies. One of those would be a favorite from my childhood, a film that has stood the test of time as a great post-nuclear horror film and the greatest giant ant story of all time. Unfortunately, Them! is locked away in Warner Brothers' movie vault, so I had to settle for Bert I. Gordon's Empire of the Ants. Would it help if I mentioned it was based on a story by H.G. Wells?
Facts of the Case
Marilyn Fryer (Joan Collins—TV's Dynasty) is an evil real estate magnate who brings a group of prospective buyers to an isolated island off in the Caribbean to make a fortune off the development rights. She also neglects to mention that people are dumping radioactive waste on ant colonies on the island. Don't get me wrong…nobody meant to dump radioactive waste on the ant colonies, but it never really starts out that way, does it? People say, "Hey, we need to dump this radioactive waste, where do you want it?" and there's always problems with the hippie environmentalists droning on and on about mosquito-infested wetlands or spotted owls or whales, or some other such nonsense, and suddenly there's nowhere left to dump the radioactive waste except on the ant colonies. It's always the ant colonies taking it on the chin.
Those who have seen horror movies before can already see where this is going.
The radioactive waste mutates the ants into (get this) giant ants! If you didn't see that coming, you should skip this review and rush out and buy this movie, because it's loaded with tons of surprises. Otherwise, keep reading.
Naturally, the ants, alternately depicted as life-size ants crawling over miniature models and giant bean bag ants with all the realism of Ty Beanie Babies, attack the investors in search of a quick snack. After that, it becomes rather standard. People run off on their own and get eaten. Women trip and fall and are unable to stand up and then get eaten. It's all one giant smorgasbord until the group makes it to a nearby town, only to discover that ants have taken control and made the townsfolk into their slaves at the local sugar refinery (naturally). Our heroes have fortunately discovered that the ants can be hurt by fire. (News flash: everything can be hurt by fire. Why are there never any smart people in these movies?)
If you're a fan of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," then the name Bert I. Gordon should ring a bell since his oeuvre was a favorite target of the shows stinging commentary. With credits like The Amazing Colossal Man and the Peter Graves vehicle The Beginning of the End, you'll know why I cringed when I saw his name on the cover. Gordon has absolutely no sense of plot, suspense, dialogue, pacing, camera work, musical score, lighting, special effects, or anything else that makes a good director, though I would have settled for a competent director. I wouldn't even know where to begin in my criticism, though one particularly painful moment featured a woman tripping on a log and spraining her ankle while her boyfriend watched as the ants lumbered down through the forest at them. While the natural reaction in a movie would be for this guy to run in and rescue his girlfriend, he doesn't; he stands around for about three minutes trying to decide if he should or not, and then runs off in terror. This comes back to haunt him when he is reunited with the rest of the group and suddenly, for no apparent reason, blurts out, "You all think I let her die, don't you?" Got guilt? Gordon should have plenty of guilt for the musical score, which is highly derivative of the musical score from Jaws. By "derivative" I mean "stolen."
The acting doesn't get much better than Gordon's shoddy directing. Joan Collins should have known better and is absolutely terrible in this role. In her defense, she later admitted this was her worst acting experience of her career, and it shows. None of the other actors are even worth mentioning in this review. I could blame this solely on an incompetent director, but I really think the actors, at the very least, deserve fifty lashes for agreeing to star in this turkey.
The "stars" may have been lured to this project with the tag line of it being based on a story by H.G. Wells. I honestly do not know if Empire of the Ants is actually based on an H.G. Wells story, though it says so on the packaging. Mr. Wells is probably rolling over in his grave knowing this film has been placed on DVD.
MGM has actually once again done a decent job on the transfer for Empire of the Ants, giving it an anamorphic transfer on a relatively clean print. The low quality of the original film stock has probably made it impossible for anyone to do a better job on this film. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, and is as flat and boring as I just made it sound. There's nothing impressive about the soundtrack, which you might believe is a good thing once you hear the screeching ant noises. As far as the special features go, there is only the trailer. Be happy about this.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To be honest, I maintained my sanity by pretending I was actually watching an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" and inserting my own sarcastic comments. This movie is nothing short of horrible and the only reason to watch it is for the cheese factor, which still doesn't necessarily make it enjoyable.
If the radioactive waste had been placed in the mosquito-infested wetlands, this movie might have been more fun since it would have been cool to see a giant mosquito completely exsanguinate a cast member every few minutes. Otherwise, I'd rather be devoured by giant bean bag-like ants then watch this movie again.
MGM is free to go, and actually thanked for devoting their resources to all of their film catalog unlike some other studios I could mention (cough) Warner Brothers (cough). Bert I. Gordon is free to go for providing hours of unintended comedy. Everyone else is guilty and will be sent off to the giant ant colonies; I think I found some radioactive waste in my refrigerator to get them started.
Warner Brothers is ordered to get Them! out on DVD as soon as possible.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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