This film is a perfect defence to anyone who misgenders a non-binary person. It’s not “he”. It’s not “she”. It’s “THEM!”
But Them! is very much the typical B movie. Indeed, the world the films constructs is a world accustomed to the inexplicable: a government agency’s top threats include suicide and flying saucers, whilst a rambling man in the hospital also believes the threat is flying saucers, rather than giant ants. It marries extraterrestrial science fiction with the radioactive giant monster movie. It relies upon every single trope of the genre: mutants from atomic bomb tests; an adventurous woman defending herself in the face of sexism; the intervention of Washington DC; Los Angeles as a city under siege, placed under martial law; two generic policemen, indistinguishable from each other, investigating sinister goings on and ending up dead; the endlessly recurrent Wilhelm scream. I could go on.
There’s some fun comedy in here, from the professor fumbling around with military headsets (decades later, he could easily have been played by Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park), to a deranged man singing World War II songs as every other character breaks the fourth wall by glaring to the audience: “what is he on about?”
Yet besides a historical interest, placed within the context of Cold War paranoia and the after-effects of the Manhattan Project and the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the giant ants aren’t all that great, and neither is the plot. The ants are positioned as a perfect metaphor to humanity, and by extension the American military identity. Both are warlike – but who are the other “them!” to incite fear into ordinary Americans? That’s right, the spectre of communism. The other.
But it holds other haunting reminders to the horror of war, in ways not intended by the filmmakers. The US sets fire to ant colonies, striking first attack in the game of war. I can’t help but be reminded of the Vietnam War, where soldiers went on slash and burn missions, destroying a society in both its people, its landscape and agriculture with a mere zippo lighter. America suffers the consequences of their atomic bomb tests, confronting the issue at hand in the worst way, murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians, and leaving many more with mutations and birth defects that persist to this day. But within this exploitative, B-movie reality, the victims are only ants who will destroy humanity as we know it.
Yet for the viewer who wants to learn about the science of ants, the film inexplicably becomes incredibly educational, combining close-up film footage of ant colonies combined with the exposition of the professor’s narration.