Queen Bitch Double Feature: Them! / Aliens

Them! noticeboard

This is just generally good advice.

Sometimes that’s just how the story goes. Giant rampaging insectoids threaten to decimate a community.

The only way to stop them, of course, is a good old fashioned dose of cleansing fire. Maybe, dunno, nuke them from orbit? Except, egads! The bug queen bitch has got her prickly forelegs on our children! And children, goddammit; they are the future.

What’s interesting about watching the 1950’s giant bug film Them!—the first of its kind—and then the 1980’s nigh-unstoppable xenomorph sequel Aliens is not so much that their stories are so damn similar. It’s the fact that this was inevitable.

Once you start with a certain premise—”deadly queen insect and brood threaten humanity”—there are only a few feasible paths you can take, story-wise. Most of them are dumb or depressing. The other one describes the basic plot of Them! and Aliens.

Watching these two films in sequence is a real treat, and not just because of the similarities. They’re both honestly great films. Them! was the Die Hard of its day, spawning a raft of giant something-or-other films. Aliens fed Paul Reiser to double-jawed phallic-headed jelly-covered monsters. What’s not to like?

And, to cut you off at the pass, one didn’t rip off the other any more than Tenzing Norgay ripped off Moses. Any idiot understands you go up. Or destroy the egg chamber. Same thing.

Them!

Them Poster

This may be the best movie poster ever printed.

If you’re dubious about a (mostly) black & white, sci-fi film from 1954, let me calm you. This “hackle-raising melodrama” isn’t nearly as cheesy as you might imagine. Yes. A lot of the actors opt for a distinctly oaken 2×4 style (check out our hero’s reaction to finding his pal Gramps dead, for example). The women—one is a scientist at least—may resist from stuffing their fists into their mouths when they scream, but just barely. And the giant ants are about as realistic as Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations.

It don’t matter none. Them! works.

It is the cream of the crop of 1950’s science fiction. While films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still may hold up equally well, Them! needs to be seen to be appreciated. Like those other two, it’s not just a nail-biting tale of horrible, ghastly oogity-boogities threatening our very existence—it’s also a reflection of the day’s fears.

Them!How do the giant ants come to be? Why, nuclear testing of course. They spring from the site of the first bomb tests in New Mexico. What, the characters wonder, will come from the other test sites? (Cough *Gojira* cough)

Here’s the basic story: Local cop Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) finds a little girl wandering the desert in shock. He investigates with the help of federal agent Bob Graham (James Arness) and field-leading entomologists, Dr. Harold & Dr. Pat Medford (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon). You will be shocked to learn that the problem is giant ants. And the giant ant problem is that new queens have hatched.

Do NOT leave your picnic unattended.

Aliens

Aliens PosterYou may declare, hand on hip, that Ridley Scott’s Alien is a far superior film to James Cameron’s more-action/less-horror sequel Aliens. If you said this, I would agree. Then I would continue on, because Aliens is still a damn fine film.

Before Cameron thought he understood what an emotion was or thought that what he read on the back of his cereal box would make a deep and meaningful basis for a series of films about bestiality, James Cameron made great movies. To varying degrees I can still get behind The TerminatorT2: Judgement DayThe Abyss, and even True Lies. Right in the middle of all that, he helmed Aliens.

Where Alien was a film about the horrors within ourselves, Aliens was an anti-corporate bug hunt. It’s not deep, but that will surprise exactly no one. What it is, is exciting.

Sigourney (a name she chose for herself. HERSELF!) Weaver reprises her role as Ripley. She gets convinced to follow a unit of Colonial Marines out to LV-426 where a passel of terraformers have dropped off the radar. LV-426 being, of course, the rock where Ripley and her crew mates on the Nostromo first got to suck face in Alien. Or get face-hugged. Whatever.

Aliens Queen

Go ask your mother

Chances are that you’ve already seen Aliens. Either you’re old enough to remember seeing it in theaters or you’ve got the DVD in a closet somewhere. Maybe you even watched it again before being horribly disappointed by the flaming turd that was Prometheus. In any case, watch it again. Right after you watch Them!

Ellen Ripley in egg chamber in Aliens

We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn.
Burn, motherfucker, burn.

And while you’re watching Aliens, I want you to think about how the two films cover a lot of the same ground. Could they have gone in different directions? Sure. Should they have? Probably not.

If you can think of a better way to tackle “deadly queen insect and brood threaten humanity” then you should be riding your rainbow-powered unicorn to meetings in Hollywood.

And if you’re doing that, please say hi to Rachel Weisz for me when you get there. I think she’s purty.

7 responses on “Queen Bitch Double Feature: Them! / Aliens

  1. My wife & I saw Aliens in 70mm when it premiered, which was awesome. Cameron’s take on “tough guy” roles (cops, space marines) always seemed grounded in a fairly realistic base. His tough guys seemed more like guys who were just doing their jobs, rather than the super he-men who speak in clipped sentences and give meaningful stares that inhabit today’s (Michael Bay) films.

    • Yep. Cameron does that thing well. Maybe better than anyone else. It’s too bad he let Titanic go to his head; I’d much rather see another action film from him than Avatar VI.

  2. I have to disagree with the assessment that James Cameron didn’t rip off “Them!”

    I like “Aliens” quite a bit, but when I began to watch “Them!”, my jaw dropped. The similarities between “Them!” (released in 1954) and “Aliens” (released thirty years later in 1984) go well beyond concept and themes, extending to characters, scenes and even the composition of shots. It’s clear Cameron was not only directly inspired by “Them!” but also took some seriously detailed notes about what elements of the 1954 film he wanted to crib for his movie.

    Really, much of “Aliens” can be summed up as key scenes from “Them!”, rearranged and re-shot for Cameron’s purposes.

    It also speaks to the shocking oddity in the 1950s of a character like Dr. Medford, the younger, in “Them!” Like Ripley in “Aliens”, her role’s an extended riff on the importance of the queen to the killer bugs the heroes are fighting. One of the most interesting scenes in context of Atomic-Age paranoia is the confab in Washington, where the federal government’s agents suggest they should inform Moscow of a potential global threat, while Dr. Medford, a civilian scientist, insists the feds should avoid a general panic by carrying out a cover-up and painting any inconvenient witnesses as unreliable or insane.

    There’s a pretty thorough comparison between “Them!” and “Aliens” here, one that proves the similarities are far, far too numerous and specific to be sheer coincidence: http://www.scifimoviezone.com/aliensthem.shtml

    • Thanks Mega Zeta,

      Yes. Well. Sure. Here’s the thing though: once you have a certain concept (i.e. giant creatures attack), there are only so many ways that story can go without it either being stupid or seriously bizarre. If you’ve got, say, creatures who are led by a queen, how can you NOT have a scene in an egg chamber? And so on.

      Which isn’t to say that Cameron didn’t watch, or love, or crib from THEM!, it’s just so say — even if he didn’t — Aliens would probably still have had the same level of overlap. You might surmise that watching THEM! inspired Cameron to give the Xenomorphs a queen, and that sounds plausible, but again… who knows? If you were asked to write a sequel to Alien, what would you have come up with?

      A queen seems to be one of a handful of plausible scenarios that aren’t either a) stupid or b) seriously bizarre.

      That’s just how it goes with screenwriting. Constraints of timing, budget, feasibility, etc. tend to steer stories along well-trod paths. Sometimes that’s outright copying or “homage”, and other times it’s just the way it is. That’s also why winning a copyright suit for screenwriting infringement is nearly impossible. You get a string of films that all involve the few heroes being brought in to save the threatened town (Magnificent Seven, Seven Samurai, A Bugs Life, Galaxy Quest, ¡Three Amigos!, etc) and only SOME of them are rip offs. The rest are just playing out a similar story in the only way it can realistically go.

      Please send our best to Mama Zeta and all the Zetalings.
      EG

      • “And the giant ants are about as realistic as Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions.”

        Ah, we were so innocent once.

        I presume this means giant ants on on their way any day now?

      • I gotcha, but the bit at the end of my comment about the queen was more a commentary on the more interesting elements of “Them!”; my incredulity over the idea of the movies’ similarity being sheer coincidence lies elsewhere.

        The similarities between the two movies is more defined by how you could dice up “Them!”, rearrange the scenes and end up with more or less a storyboard for “Aliens”.

        I mean, a young orphan girl getting rescued from the bugs that killed her family, sure, that makes sense as a coincidence.

        A young orphan girl getting rescued from the bugs that killed her family… who’s also temporarily mute from her traumatic encounter with the bugs and totes around part of a dismembered doll? In both movies?

        It’s a lot less likely that’s a coincidence, but it’d be possible… if it weren’t just one of the many 1-to-1 matches between scenes, elements and even shots between the two movies.

        We’re talking: Cameron reproduced shots from “Them!” down to lighting and framing. Include one or two shots or elements from a movie, it’s homage. Include a bunch of them so that it a significant portion of your movie is just you recreating another movie with better special effects, and it’s something else.

        Whether it could hold up in a court of law? I suppose that’s none of my business.

        But it’s pretty clear that Cameron ripped off “Them!” to make “Aliens”. As rip-offs go, it’s a good movie, though.

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