Insect Section Intersection
'The review of the bird movie with the terrible puppet was unexpectedly adequate,' came the missive from the Post editorial team, in the usual effulgent style. 'Next we're doing something about bugs. Try and keep the standard up.' Bugs? Were communications between the Post command bunker and the 24LAS garret about to be sundered by variations in our theoretically common tongue? One clarificatory email later it turned out that arthropods were on the agenda, though thankfully not the menu. This was much more to my taste than movies about surveillance equipment, which was the other possibility that crossed my mind.
Mainly this is because many films about insects seem to fall into the SF genre, for some reason or other, and I like to think this is a genre I can affect an air of authority about more convincingly than most. You can start the line with Them! (giant atomic ants nest in the LA sewers), and then trace a path down through the years, taking in such treats as Tarantula! (experiments with growth hormone go wrong and Clint Eastwood has to bomb a special effect – not actually about an insect, of course, but as we shall see taxonomic precision is not the strong suit of arthropod-related cinema), The Deadly Mantis (another improbably big insect features in a movie not unlike the one with the giant bird), The Fly and its sequels (trouble with the teleporter), and so on, down through Phase IV (cosmic intelligences take up ant-training as a hobby) and on to the present day (personally I've always felt that Aliens, in particular, owes a significant debt to Them!). This doesn't even touch on the Japanese contribution to the tradition – how can one not mention Mothra? (Having done a Mothra movie only a few weeks ago and not wanting to alienate one's readers, it's actually fairly straightforward.) There are also the giant caterpillars which appear in Rodan and, much later, Godzilla Vs Megaguirus. It's actually a lot harder to think of insect-related movies which aren't SF – the only ones I can come up with off the top of my head are The Naked Jungle and The Swarm, in which Charlton Heston and Michael Caine respectively contend with large numbers of our exoskeletal friends.
Still, the sheer number of bug movies in the SF-horror vein suggests there has always been money to be made here. This may explain the nature (no pun intended) of the distinctly odd movie The Hellstrom Chronicle, made in 1971 and directed by Ed Spiegel and Walon Green. The Hellstrom Chronicle was advertised in the style of those SF-horror projects, on the strength of its various baleful pronouncements on the future of the human race, which seems to me to be rather disingenous considering it is actually a wildlife documentary (albeit one including brief clips from Them! and The Naked Jungle). Nevertheless, the film was a financial success and won an Oscar and a BAFTA, so it clearly didn't do anyone any harm.
After some striking opening footage representing the formation of the Earth and the origins of life itself, and then some nice footage of carnivorous plants doing their thing, we meet the radical scientist Dr Nils Hellstrom himself. Hellstrom is a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), an MS (Master of Science), and WF (wholly fictitious). He is played by Lawrence Pressman, who basically hosts and narrates the entire movie. Hellstrom is, by his own admission, a fanatic, a heretic, and a lunatic, and has fallen out of favour with the scientific establishment due to his his unpopular Big Idea: this is that, in the ongoing struggle between the human race and the insect world, there can only be one victor, and it's not going to be the big soft pink fleshy things.
The rest of the movie is basically Hellstrom trying to convince the audience that we're all doomed, and supporting his argument with various pieces of state-of-the-art footage of insects in their everyday lives. We are treated to segments showing battles between red and black harvester ants, more ants attacking a termite colony, the curious sex lives of spiders, a startling sequence showing what it's like to be inside a plane flying through a locust swarm, driver ants on the march, and so on.
The photography still looks good even nearly fifty years on, with many striking images; no doubt it seemed even more impressive back in the early seventies. It is quite fascinating and absorbing, even before one considers the contributions made by Hellstrom himself. These add a lot to the tone of the movie and the impression it leaves, but viewed objectively they are frankly a bit of a mixed bag. Hellstrom's thesis was apparently synthesised from the work of a range of contemporary entomologists, approved by two advisors from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and then turned into a script by David Seltzer (later to have a decent career as a writer-director, most notably as scriptwriter of both versions of The Omen). I'm guessing the advisors didn't get a look at the final script, or if they did their notes were ignored.
There are some interesting philosophical ideas here: insects have no capacity for intelligence or abstract reasoning, but – argues Hellstrom – this also means they are incapable of stupidity or irrationality. Their lack of individuality likewise gives them a competitive advantage. (And so on: there are some ecological ideas here too.) But on the other hand, you can imagine the advisors seething every time Hellstrom refers to the entire class of insects (eight million species, more or less) as a single creature, analogous to humans (one species – extant, anyway).
In the end, though, one kind of gets the impression that Dr Hellstrom and his theories are basically here to provide a bit of colour and atmosphere to link together bits of (very impressive) footage showing insects and their cousins up close. And this they do successfully. I suppose it's always a question of how you find an audience for this kind of film, which isn't typical cinema fare – twenty-five years later, a European movie called Microcosmos was released, which took a much more lyrical-pastoral approach to the same sort of material, largely eschewed narration, and once again did very well for itself.
The Hellstrom Chronicle turned out to have a curious afterlife as well – apart from winning various big documentary awards, it also inspired an actual SF novel by Frank Herbert: Hellstrom's Hive, portraying a human society run along the same lines as a nest of social insects and its conflict with 'wild' humanity (i.e., the likes of you and me). Perhaps more significant, though, is the way the film presents wildlife footage with a strong element of narrative, including the use of incidental music to heighten the drama and impact of what is being shown. I've no idea if this was an innovation of the film, or something which was widespread in nature films at the time. Certainly, The Hellstrom Chronicle does this well, and the technique has become ubiquitous in wildlife documentary series today: one of the reasons I've more or less stopped watching this sort of programme is that any kind of scientific or educational underpinning has been dropped in favour of simple spectacle, very often sentimental. But it would be excessively harsh to hold The Hellstrom Chronicle responsible for this. This is obviously quite an odd movie, and in some ways it feels quite dated now, but the quality of the microphotography and Pressman's well-pitched performance keep it engaging even today.