Saturday, July 21, 2018

Favorite Sci-Fi Movies: THEM!

Hello Dear Readers!

I've made it no secret that I watch plenty of movies and TV programs. Familiar movies and TV shows are less distracting for me than listening to music while I am writing. Audiobooks are right out when I'm writing: it feels like the mental equivalent of trying to drink a glass of water and talk at the same time.

I enjoy classic monster and science fiction movies. Thing From Another World (also John Carpenter's The Thing, which is awesome on its own and compliments "Who Goes There?," the novella on which the movies are based), The Day The Earth Stood Still (I have not yet viewed the remake...according to my mom, I need not bother), War of the Worlds (I watched the remake: ten minutes in and I was cheering for the aliens to hurry up and take over humanity), and Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: they are all part of our household's go-to movie selections.

Original monster and science fiction movies (left) and what the remakes show me (right). Image is of "Ecce Homo," by 19th-century painter Elías García Martínez on the walls of the church of Santuario de Misericordia before (left) and after (right) the unsanctioned "restoration" by Cecilia Gimenez.

My all-time favorite classic monster sci-fi movie is THEM!, a black-and-white monster movie released by Warner Bros. Studios in 1954.
Movie poster for THEM! (1954).
My great-aunt Molly (the aunt who got me interested in paleontology) had an extensive movie collection, including science fiction and horror. You would not picture a rather proper, senior British woman who had very definite ideas about what it was to be "lady-like" having the entire run of the Halloween movies. Before I had seen THEM!, Molly regaled Child Me with the more chilling scenes from the movie while I listened with rapt attention.

I'm going to nerd out over all of the ways in which I love THEM! I'll also point out the areas where I think that, if the movie were to be remade, that would make it better (in my not-so-humble opinion).

Without further ado, here are the two main reasons that THEM! is my favorite black-and-white sci-fi monster movie of all time!


Much to my chagrin, it was difficult to find a decent image of the ichnology involved in THEM! online. Oh dear me, I had to actually watch the movie to create this blog post. It was a trial for me, Dear Readers, to watch this movie yet again, but for you I completed this great labor. (Tee with a side of Hee.)

We start THEM! by following two New Mexico State police officers on their route to investigate a patrol plane report of a shocked and non-responsive little girl wandering glaze-eyed through the desert in her pyjamas. On tracing the girl's origins to a camper trailer, we see that it was torn to pieces from the outside-in, no money or valuables were stolen, blood on shredded clothing and her family missing. The officers noticed a strange mark outside of the trailer. They start thinking about what could have made that enigmatic mark in the sand. Was it a bobcat? We don't know! Welcome to ichnology!
Minute 7:20 in to THEM! where we first see the mystery mark. The New Mexico State Patrol is quite right: no bobcat made this mark.
A larger team arrived to investigate the trailer-crime scene. A member of the forensic team is seen dusting sand away from a white substance that was applied to the mystery track in soft sand using...a putty knife. Ideally, they would have gently misted the surface with water, and then poured a very thin consistency plaster into the track. If these tracks can be destroyed by wind, guaranteed that smooshing putty-consistency plaster into the track will do just as much damage.
8:35 mark in THEM!, where the forensic team is smooshing a thick plaster into the very soft sand. This is not the standard operating procedure for making neoichnology casts.
Other than the consistency of the plaster, this is really no different than how I collect neoichnology, a.k.a. present-day track samples...

[WARNING SIRENS SOUNDING] ICHNOLOGIST'S RANT: Do not ever, EVER, pour any kind of plaster into a fossil track. There are likely exceptions to this but those are case-by-case instances, and the action would have to be overseen by an experienced paleontologist. Every year (Every. Dang. Year.) I hear about fossil tracks on public lands that are irreversibly damaged by someone using plaster. Check out this article about the tracks on Scotland's Dinosaur Isle, and a similar case near Moab in Utah. I am going to be uncharacteristically* understanding and think that most people don't really want to damage the track they are trying to copy, but want a memento. I'm also going to give the benefit of the doubt and suggest that the people making these mementos believe that they are going about it the proper way. However, actions outweigh intent, and the result is that irreplaceable heritage is damaged.

*Uncharacteristic in that I've seen too many acts of selfishness regarding fossil tracks and too much lost and damaged heritage that my Benefit of the Doubt Box is empty. It's full of dust bunnies and the echoes of my quiet weeping over lost heritage.

"But Strange Woman, they rubbed Vaseline on the fossil track surface before they poured in the plaster, doesn't that protect..."

No NO NO! First, how are they going to clean the petroleum jelly off of the track when they are finished? Did they pack water? Brushes? Soap? I think not. Second, that jelly is going to catch lots of organic material. That organic material is going to attract other organic material to grow on the surface, which can speed up natural erosion. Third, the track surface is HARD. Plaster sets up HARD. Adding petroleum jelly will not help hard plaster dislodge from under hard rock undercuts, overhangs, and jagged surfaces. Here's what I have seen happen: either the plaster cast gets stuck, breaks, and the broken bits remain inside the track, or the unstable rock surface of the track breaks and pieces of the track are ripped up with the plaster cast. Please please please PLEASE leave track casting to the professionals. Support your local museums and purchase one of the track replicas they provide, which have been made with the respect and skill that our fossil heritage deserves. [END ICHNOLOGIST'S RANT]

...and what you end up with is like a cameo engraving: the replica sticks out at you, whereas the original track that you pour the plaster in to is like an intaglio engraving, where the image is recessed into the surface. The cast is also the mirror image: what looks like a left toe is really the right toe, for example. I've long promised to do a step-by-step post (oh yes, pun completely intended) on how I make neoichnology casts: this may be my summer to finally do that post!
9:48 mark in THEM! What do you think, Dear Readers? Should I wear a fedora whilst making plaster neoichnology replicas?
The finished replica of the mystery track is shown to us when James Arness (character name Special Agent Robert/Bob Graham) is assigned to the case, as the girl's missing (and presumed dead) grandfather was a retired FBI agent. As a bit of monster movie trivia, James Arness played The Thing in "Thing From Another World," which only lost to "THEM!" as the best black-and-white monster movie of all time by an ant's antenna (a non-atomic ant's antenna).
The finished plaster replica of the mystery track at mark 17:50 in THEM! I can't tell from the image if the dark spots are larger grains of sand, or if they are the dreaded air bubbles that plague plaster replicas. Air bubbles are bad because they are areas that are missing surface detail.
When Robert sends the track to the Bureau, and they send it along to the Department of Agriculture, it attracts the attention of two eminent vermicologists, the Doctors Medford. We would likely call the Doctors Medford entomologists nowadays, a.k.a. scientists who study insects like ants. The Doctors Medford are the second reason I consider THEM! as the best old monster sci-fi movie of all time, but we'll get to that later on in Point 2.

Once the Doctors Medford arrived on the scene and interviewed the little girl, they insisted on seeing the original crime scene, where they continued their neoichnology investigation. From the fresh track they found at the scene during a sandstorm, the Doctors Medford determined that the trackmaker was 2.5 meters in length. If you have a rough idea of what the trackmaker is (for example, the track of a theropod) the size of the track will correspond to the size. A rough calculation often used for theropod dinosaurs is that Height at the hip = 4 x Footprint Length. How the proportions would work for giant radiation-mutated ants, I do not know.

Once their hypothesis is confirmed, the Doctors Medford gave the FBI and the New Mexico State Patrol a crash-course in ant nests. Insect nests and burrows also fall into the realm of ichnology. Dr. Pat Medford spotted the nest during the aerial search.
Mark 34:02 in THEM! showing the first aerial view of the giant ant nest.

See the camera with three lenses that Dr. Pat Medford is holding? That's a stereo camera. They produce paired images that can be viewed under a stereo viewer*, which our eyes and brain transform into a three-dimensional image.

*Apologies to my fellow geology majors if my mention of stereo viewers brought back horrible memories of poorly aligned topography photos and eye strain from endless hours of geology labs.
Dr. Medford is about to document the giant ant nest with a stereo camera.
Viewing tracks (and anything, really) in 3D has advanced a great deal since stereo cameras. My colleague Dr. Richard McCrea has two stereo cameras, and used to publish stereo pair images of dinosaur tracks in his scientific papers. Now he uses 3D digital images and a process called photogrammetry, pioneered by Neffra Matthews and Tom Noble. Check out the photogrammetry images in our work on foot injuries preserved in theropod tracks!
None of my 3D photogrammetry images will ever be this exciting. Dr. Pat Medford wins for all time.
Dr. Pat Medford lead the expedition into the nest and discovered that there were two queen ants that flew the before the colony was gassed. It is the team's knowledge of ant ichnology that leads them to direct staff to scour the news for reports of large tunnels and strange flying objects. With that knowledge, they eventually discover the last nest in the drains under Los Angeles. Take home message: ichnology can save the day. If you are facing an attack from a Giant Whatever, get a consulting ichnologist. We'll set you on the right track (still not sorry!)


The Doctors Medford are my favorite characters in the movie (besides the giant ants, of course). The Doctors Medford are a father-daughter team of entomologists: Dr. Harold Medford, played by Edmund Gwenn, and Dr. Pat(ricia) Medford, played by Joan Weldon.
Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), the father of the Doctors Medford in THEM!.
Dr. Pat Medford, the daughter of the Doctors Medford in THEM! James Arness gives us a not-so-subtle example of "The Male Gaze."
I'll deal with the parts that annoy me first. The sexism that Dr. Pat Medford experiences will be tiresomely familiar to my women in STEM readers. When we are first introduced to Dr. Pat Medford, the scene is contrived so that her travel skirt gets caught on the plane ladder. Her leg gets several seconds of screen time before we ever see her face. Welcome to the movie, Male Gaze, where women are introduced to the audience using their parts rather than as people. Unfortunately, recent movies are still using this tired trope: Jurassic World is cringe-worthy for its Male Gaze moments.

Then we get the sexist jokes between the police sergeant and the FBI agent. "If she's the kind of doctor that treats sick people, I think I've got a fever" style of comment is not funny, not witty, and definitely not original. They're tiresome because we hear that kind of nonsense A LOT. If you refer to women in science using sexual tones like this, realize that we're going to call you out, relentlessly mock you, and add you to the list of people not to trust.

The initial conversation between Bob Graham and Dr. Medford is equally annoying. He referred to her as "Miss," then stutters around as though he's unsure of what to call her when he had absolutely no problem calling Dr. Harold Medford "Dr." Dr. Pat Medford lets him off the hook by saying "If the Doctor bothers you, call me Pat." Every time I see this part my brain screams "HECK NO! You tell him the correct name is 'DOCTOR.'"

But hey, this is a monster movie from 1954. Surely no one has a problem calling a scientist who is a woman by her professional title in 2018, right? RIGHT!?!

Sadly, no. It might as well be 1954. Dr. Fern Riddell angered insecure men on Twitter by posting that she wanted to be referred to by her professional title, not Mrs. or Miss. Friends, the replies from the whiny and the insecure were phenomenally pathetic, and those tweeting them should know they were roundly mocked for sniveling excuses for adults that they are. We see you.

It is Dr. Harold Medford that redeems the interactions that Dr. Pat Medford experiences. He often calls her "Doctor" when asking her opinion on the investigation. He also supports her decision to lead the expedition into the giant ant nest. When the FBI agent and the Doctors Medford are giving an Ant 101 seminar to the military personnel, Dr. Harold Medford asks Bob to turn out the lights, not Dr. Pat Medford. Dr. Harold Medford, as the principal investigator, leads most of the presentations, but he does not interrupt, talk over, or dismiss Dr. Pat Medford when she speaks in these meetings. In short, Dr. Harold Medford treats Dr. Pat Medford like a colleague. I know, a radical notion, right?

The way Dr. Harold Medford treats Dr. Pat Medford is pleasantly similar to my introduction to vertebrate ichnology. Dr. Rich McCrea was my first mentor - oh, and he also pointed out that Dr. Pat Medford is the opposite of the typical "damsel in distress" writing that plagues lead women characters in such movies. Rich helped me train my eye to recognize fossil tracks, how to collect data, and what we can do with that data. When I started attending ichnology conferences and being invited on to expeditions, my male colleagues were welcoming AND respectful: I was treated like a colleague. Dr. Martin Lockley, my other ichnology mentor, has published extensively on Cretaceous bird tracks. We often have long discussions on issues surrounding the naming of bird tracks (there are issues, friends) and it is always friendly, fun (the bad puns fly fast and fierce), yet respectful. See? No need for gross jokes to have fun! We have a good ichnology group.

On investigating the initial attack site, Dr. Medford's travel outfit is going to come back to haunt her. I have been known to stalk the occasional bird or two while dressed in a skirt and heels, but it was bloody awkward. Dr. Medford experiences the same awkwardness: walking in soft sand in heels is tricky. Trying to run away from a giant ant that is trying to kill you in heels is darn near impossible.
Yeah, I'd probably trip and fall as well.
In reality, this scene was likely put there to include the classic trope of "woman runs, trips, falls, and screams." It doesn't meld with what we see later of Dr. Medford when she leads the exploration of the giant ant nest. There she is cool-headed and logical. It also doesn't match with what the Doctors Medford already know they are up against: all of the data was pointing towards 2 meter long ants. THEM! could have done with a rewrite of this scene.

When we get to the scene where the team is about to descend into the giant ant nest, Dr. Pat Medford is in her field gear, which prompts all sorts of manly displays by Bob Graham, who tells Dr. Pat Medford, a trained entomologist, that an ant nest is "no place for any woman." Dr. Pat Medford is having none of this. After trying to logically explain to Bob that there needs to be a scientist in the nest to make proper observations, she ends up having to forcefully tells him "There's no time to give you a crash course in insect pathology, so let's stop all the talk and get on with it!" Bob grumps off.
I know that facial expression on Dr. Medford. It says "Oh FFS, here I am justifying my presence on this expedition." Walk off, Bob.
We have a present-day example of this: Laura Dern, a.k.a Dr. Ellie Sattler in "Jurassic Park," has to say to Hammond "Look, we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back."
Dr. Sattler's expression says it all.
Dr. Medford also takes charge inside the nest. She tolerates no argument when she tells Bob to burn the still-living larvae in the nursery chamber. "I said burn it! Burn everything!" Thankfully, no one argues further with her. They actually do their job and burn the darn thing.

I am also pleased that the one woman main character in THEM! is not there solely for the character development of the main guy, Bob Graham, nor is there any focus paid to whatever personal relationship that may have developed throughout the movie. The characters are all fairly stable: they do not go through a roller-coaster of emotional development. The only real change in character perspective is "Holy Owls, there REALLY ARE giant ants!" Also, we do see a subtle shift in the non-scientist characters in respect for the Doctors Medford and their expertise. This is all to the movie's credit. In a remake, I would bet my dermestid beetle colonies that Dr. Pat Medford would be reworked as a plot device to 1) be the focus of Bob Graham's overt (and likely annoying) romantic interest, regardless that she is there to do a job; 2) prompt Graham to become a better whatever in order to earn her wuv, and 3) eventually come to see that she was cold and aloof and business-like (because, um, that whole "there on a job" thing) but harrowing danger has revealed twue wuv was there all along!
Wuv...twue wuv...

OK, THEM! is a very white movie. The only time we really see a person of color in the movie is near the end, when Los Angeles is being proclaimed under martial law. We see military vehicles zoom by a shoe-shining stand, and the shoe-shine person is a person of color. So, not a main character. A remake would (hopefully, in the right hands) show that scientists, state troopers, and FBI agents exist who are not white men. If Ava DuVernay (director of "A Wrinkle in Time") ever wants to remake THEM! I would watch the heck out of it.

All in all, THEM! gets 4.75 Giant Ants out of 5. I Googled "five ants" and now I can't get this song out of my head, so enjoy your new Ear, Ear Ant! You're welcome!

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