Students of history understand the significant role New Mexico played in the development of the world’s first atomic bomb. The state is filled with historic places, such as Los Alamos, where a team of scientists and engineers developed the atomic bomb and established Los Alamos National Laboratory, and White Sands Missile Range, which contains the Trinity Site, the location of the world’s first atomic explosion on July 16, 1945. It is no surprise, then, that the film Them! opens in the desert of Alamogordo, New Mexico, which is approximately 47 miles from White Sands.
It is in this expansive wasteland that a New Mexico State Police aircraft spots a little girl (Sandy Descher) who appears to be in deep shock. A ground patrol picks her up and attempts to establish her identity. As the investigation ensues, the two state policemen discover a trailer and general store that have been torn apart. Both places show no signs of robbery, but both have been destroyed from the inside and sugar is also found.
It turns out the trailer belonged to an FBI agent, which prompts G-man Robert Graham (James Arness) to join the investigative efforts of Officer Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), whose partner is killed when left behind at the general store. A strange footprint taken at the trailer site is sent to the FBI labs, which in turn send it to the Department of Agriculture. The print attracts the attention of Dr Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his assistant and daughter Pat (Joan Weldon).
Harold believes he knows the source of the print, but first he must prove his hypothesis. After breaking through the shock of the little girl by wafting formic acid under her nose (when she comes out of shock, she screams the film’s title, “Them!”), he demands to be taken to the trailer site, where Pat (in tight skirt and heels, no less) encounters a giant ant, which Peterson kills with the help of a machinegun (by the way, automatic weapons are standard equipment in New Mexico State Police units – modern troops carry M-16s).
After finding the ant nest in Alamogordo, the US Army destroys it, but several queens and their consorts escape. The remainder of the film focuses on the pursuit, which leads to California, where US troops face off with the ant menace.
Them! set the standard for all ‘giant bug’ films that followed, many of which fell way short of the mark. Unlike modern films that ‘save’ their creature for the final reel, Them! showcases its titular creatures, and even though they have dated poorly given today’s special effects, they are not held back and play a integral role in the action. The director Gordon Douglas pumps up the action yet manages to retain an atmospheric sense of dread throughout the film. For example, scenes of the vast desert – in the throes of a dust storm – where all that is heard are bizarre mechanical emanations (of ants trilling), precede the attack on Pat by a giant ant.
As for the action, there is plenty of it, particularly when the US Army must enter an underground maze of storm drains in Los Angeles to battle the ants. Although the ants are rigid and come off as fake during these sequences, the actors ‘sell’ the action as best they can. Arness and Whitmore are perfectly cast as cops (their glances as Dr Medford explains things are truly hilarious and in keeping with the nature of law-enforcement officers), but it is Edmund Gwenn who steals the show as an absentminded professor who realises that humanity’s manipulation of nature may one day destroy the very Earth.
For the most part, the science in this film is handled rather well, notwithstanding the fact that giant insects could not survive (gravity would make it impossible for them to use their spindly legs to pick up their carapaces, for one thing). However, most of the entomology scenes not only provide interesting info but also foreshadow important plot elements.
If you watch the film carefully, you may spot William Schallert (CIA Director Grauber in Colossus: The Forbin Project) as an ambulance attendant and Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek) as a Telex operator.