Empire of the Ants (dir. Bert I. Gordon, 1977)
Distributor: American International Pictures (released through Orion Pictures, now owned by MGM)
“They will inherit the earth…sooner than you think!”
Brief Synopsis: Joan Collins and a crew of people I can’t recognize are terrorized by radioactive giant ants who herd us like they herd aphids, use us to mine fungus, and use pheromones to control people. Source of the phrase, “I, for one, would like to welcome our new insect overlords,” made famous on The Simpsons.
Alright, for our first installment of “It Came From the Forgotten Filmography Fridays,” I chose to look at this movie, Empire of the Ants, primarily because of the title. Also, if the titles of a lot of these posts aren’t obvious enough, I have a love of kitschy sci-fi, horror, and melodrama that can be almost disturbing. Although ostensibly based on a story by H.G. Wells, this movie is clearly a throwback to the “giant insect” movies of the 1950s (amongst them Them! and Tarantula.) Joan Collins is amongst the cast, although this is before her Dynasty heyday.
“Did you ever take a close look at what the ant is all about?”
The introductory voiceover has barely begun and I already am regretting choosing this film. It begins with a series of close shots on ants cutting up leaves, while a voice-of-God narrator discusses the ant’s ability to cultivate fungus and herd aphids makes it “second to man in terms of intelligence.” Um, what about chimpanzees? Or dolphins? It attempts to describe the ants’ greatness. This kind of shaky pseudo-science, including the use of pheromones, is common for films like this, so we’ll ignore this for right now.
Also, for a story based on an H.G. Welles story, I don’t think Welles predicted nuclear waste as the source of their giantness. So I’m not sure how much of it’s really “H.G. Welles’” Empire of the Ants is really his.
We spend a long time establishing that scientists are dumping white barrels labeled in big red letters “radioactive waste.” The bottom of the barrel reads “do not open.” One of these barrels of waste is, of course, the source of the ants’ gigantism, because that makes things bigger.
Everything in the costuming and props seems dated to specifically 1977 (or maybe late 1976.) Joan Collins plays a crooked real estate developer, but she essentially is playing Joan Collins, that is to say a bitch, although it’s weird seeing her look like a normal person and not look like a Jim Henson Creature Shop creation. She is, of course, trying to sell land on an island that will soon be The Empire of the Ants.
She, the boat’s Skipper, her leads a group of perspective buyers an old couple, a cheap couple, another couple, an older woman and another woman, and Collins’ leisure suit-wearing boytoy Charlie (who looks a lot like Bruce Campbell, but is in fact Edward Power,) and The Professor and Mary-Anne for a three-hour tour... I have yet to hear the names of any of these characters other than Charlie, who they are, or why I should care about real estate development, other than my assumption they’re going to the Empire of the Ants.
Through the discussion of the crew, we learn the extent of Collins’ crooked dealings, and we see the ants getting their first dip in radioactive waste (which looks more like mercury. Wow, no matter how they do it it’s environmentally unsound.) There’s an awkward outdoor dinner party where we’re introduced to these potential buyers. Still barely care about them... Most of this is irrelevant, except the older woman was fired from her job and is looking for investments to make a quick buck. There’s an almost-rape scene involving Charlie and one of the guests where the girl says no, until she starts to say yes, then knees him in the balls. This guy, is of course, the first encounter with the giant ants (who watch unseen.) The “multiple tiny circles” for the ant’s eyes are hilarious.
Something about these characters is intrinsically boring and unsympathetic. I’m waiting for them to all be eaten by giant ants.
After establishing investing here is a bad idea, there’s a tram tour into the wilderness, Jackie Collins on a megaphone. Shots of the eyes watching them repeatedly. Way too many times. The first encounter with the ants is at a picnic, where the one cheap guy realizes the real estate’s a fraud, he gets eaten by giant ants, his wife runs off.
‘70s special effects aren’t terribly good, but it’s painfully obvious when the giant ant puppets are used and the close-up photography of the ants. Watching the old lady get eaten by giant ants from the lady’s perspective is hilarious.
Eventually they realize there are giant ants (about thirty minutes in.) One couple decides to split up to look for the lost couple while the rest go to the boat. This is the couple I think we’re supposed to care about, but this fails. And then the giant ants attack the boat to keep them from escaping, the ants kill the crew except for the captain and blow up the boat.
Useful fact for the day: ants don’t like fire. They’re also second smartest animals on the earth, besides people.
They try to stay by a fire, until it starts raining, they go into the jungle, and run into more giant ants, who are herding them (like some kind of man-sized aphids!) They eat a few people, hard for me to care when a bunch of hairy ant puppets swarm around a person with a huge collar, until there are 5...no-name (I find out later his name is Joe, when he fails to rent a car, seriously,) girl who almost got raped, older lady who got fired, the captain, and Joan Collins. None of the deaths are exceptionally gory, just some blood but no lost limbs or people really ripped apart. What started as kitschy fun is just boring. Most of this film involves screaming and running away from giant ants, which isn’t surprising, but repetitive, like the reoccurring shots from the ants POV.
Then they wander into a town (wait, wasn’t this island undeveloped?) that is obsessed with sugar, and surprisingly blasé about the possibility of giant ants threatening their sugar refinery and unwilling to let the people escape, unsurprising given that the town is actually secretly run by the giant ants and their pheromones (it’s like some kind of invasion, like a group of collective, almost communal, that’s destroying us and our way of life. Hopefully radiation can both cause and solve this problem…)
Captured, the crew is put to work in the town’s sugar refinery. These giant radioactive ants took over pretty quickly... In fact, since we see ants getting exposed to toxic waste before and after the beginning of this cruise, I can only assume it happened within a few hours. The sheriff and his deputies are already enthralled, and infecting the townsfolk with ant pheromones, which looks like fog machine fog. “Every week they must be brought back to be indoctrinated,” which again doesn’t make sense given the timeframe. When did the ants become giant? Joan Collins is gassed to become slave to the giant ants, but too little too late. A flare ends up blowing up the entire refinery, four of the group (the captain, the girl who was almost raped, and the older lady, and Joe, who told me his name when he failed to rent a car to get out of there.) They then escape on a boat out towards where? In any event, this does not resolve anything, or does it?! FREEZE FRAME ENDING! Also, although this may predate the PETA warning, animals may have been harmed during the making of this film. I’m gonna guess some ants. Special thanks are given to the Florida Film Commission (I am equally amazed this exists,) and the Sugar Cane Cooperative of Florida (where I’m guessing they got their sugar.)
Thank God this movie was just 90 minutes. It’s decently made, but hardly what I’d recommend, unless you are a fan of Joan Collins or giant ants (or both.) C.