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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Giant Bug Movies (originally published 11/97)

Most of us exist in a perpetual Mexican stand-off with all sorts of bugs. We accomplish this mostly by maintaining a level of chemical toxicity in and around our homes that is just barely amenable to our own survival, on the theory that the many-legged creepy crawlies will succumb to the poison before we do. Knowing how hard-won and precarious our dominion over our home turf is, we can hardly be blamed for wondering how we would manage if the bugs suddenly mutated into a more menacing form - growing to giant size, for example.

"Starship Troopers" is the latest in a long line of movies that exploit that very fear. The fifties in particular saw an explosion of giant bug movies on the big screen. Often, these overgrown vermin are explained as the result of atomic testing, providing a timely cautionary metaphor about the dangers of using nuclear power irresponsibly. If "Starship Troopers" has whetted your appetite for giant bugs, look for these titles on video.

"Them!" (1954). The picture that started it all was this above average science fiction thriller featuring giant mutant ants menacing the desert of New Mexico. The pursuit of these monstrous insects eventually leads to a nest ensconced in the Los Angeles sewer system, queen and all. The excellent cast includes James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, and James Arness.

"Tarantula" (1955). The success of "Them!" spawned a raft of imitations, the first of which was this arachnophobe's nightmare. This film is an exception to the rule of tying giant bugs to atomic testing. Here it is an experiment in developing artificial nutrients that has gone awry, causing one of the test subjects, a tarantula, to grow without limit. Naturally, the spider escapes. By the time it reaches a nearby town, it's twice the size of the buildings.

"The Black Scorpion" (1957). It seems that volcanic eruptions in Mexico have opened a passageway to a subterranean world where insects, arachnids, and other crawly things have evolved to gigantic proportions. Now free to roam the surface of the Earth, monster scorpions quickly discover the free dinner buffet afforded by nearby towns in the form of the luckless human inhabitants. The main attraction here are the special effects, which were created by Willis O'Brien, the effects genius who gave us King Kong.

"The Monster That Challenged the World" (1957). Despite the singular title, there are actually many big bugs in this film. Hatched when their prehistoric eggs are unearthed by undersea earthquakes, the creatures are described as giant sea snails despite the fact that they look more like caterpillars of some sort. On the other hand, they do live in shells, and who am I to say what giant prehistoric sea snails would look like in any case?

"Mothra" (1962). No national cinema has contributed more uranium-spawned monsters to the big screen than the Japanese, who gave us "Godzilla," "Rodan," and "Ghidrah," among others. Of course, no filmmakers have a better reason for dramatizing concerns about the indiscriminate use of atomic energy than the Japanese either, in view of the atomic carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of these Japanese monsters fall more nearly into the dinosaur category, but Mothra, as the name suggests, belongs with the big bugs. The creature begins its existence as a giant caterpillar, which hatches from a huge egg found on an island where H-bombs have been tested. Because a pair of tiny twin girls, native to the island, have been kidnapped and taken to Tokyo, Mothra leaves the island to retrieve the girls. It seems that there is some sort of psychic connection between Mothra and the twins, and Mothra is none too pleased about being separated from them. After wreaking havoc in Tokyo in grand Japanese monster style, Mothra spins a cocoon and emerges as an enormous moth, in which form it is finally able to rescue the twins.

"Mothra" is an extremely unusual film in that it manages to make its buggy star somewhat sympathetic. Most big bug movies, like "Starship Troopers," take the much easier path of trading on our natural revulsion for such creatures. I don't know about you, but when I encounter one smiling up at me from the baseboard I just sprayed yesterday, I must admit that those warm and fuzzy Mothra feelings go right out the window as I reach for the insecticide.

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