Sunday, July 24, 2022

Cardboard Science: And out of the smoke locusts came forth unto the earth, and power was given to them


Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Written by Fred Freiberger, Lester Gorn, and Bert I. Gordon

Spoilers: moderate

Unless I am very mistakenthough it's hard to determine exactly when Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest Ackerman started calling him thisit was The Amazing Colossal Man that turned mere mortal Bert I. Gordon into Mr. B.I.G.  But between the abominable crumminess of 1957's The Cyclops and Colossal Man the same year, Gordon had already begun to consolidate his legacy as B-movies' premier purveyor of largeness with his other film of 1957, Beginning of the End.  Call it bad, but if you've seen Gordon's earliest efforts, you know it's his first work as an actual professional filmmaker, and not (just) an amateur DIY special effects technician.  Personally, I like it, starting with its title, an unusual one for Gordon in its caginess.  I do wish it had another "the," but none of his similar moviesThe Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People, Earth vs. the Spider, et ceteraso attempt to poetically conceal the nature of their menace.  Perhaps even Gordon didn't think Invasion of the Giant Grasshoppers was marketable.

In truth, I cannot say who chose the title, or the monster: Gordon isn't credited as a writer, though there is strong evidence suggesting that Gordon had the original idea, and perhaps even that Fred Freiberger and Lester Gorn merely polished his script ("Lester Gorn" in particular sounds like a pseudonym, but it's not like Gordon was ever shy).  Whatever the case, Beginning of the End likewise confirmed Gordon's career-long obsession with H.G. Wells's 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, a story he adapted, both explicitly and implicitly, very frequently and never faithfully; it's the first Gordon movie where that Wellsian lift is obvious.

The intent, however, was to tap one of the key veins of 50s sci-fi, the big bug movie.  It was a form that proved very good at allegorizing the fears that gripped America after Trinity, and at anticipating the eco-horror of the future, yet to a degree that perhaps indicates how middling this famous subgenre actually is, the big bug movies are valued today more as metaphors than cinema.  Nevertheless, things got off to a comparatively-classy start with 1954's Them!, which by virtue of being first has wound up the consensus pick for the best of the decade's giant bug flicks, though by no means is it my own favorite.  I'm not keen on giving Beginning of the End the honorthough given that the top tier of big bug movies contains Them! and Tarantula and nothing else, one may wonder what my favorite is (for the record, it's Tarantula)but this might have the best plot of them, perhaps the only one that transcends the formula Them! laid out.  I ask you to save your expressions of incredulity till the end.

There's no arguing it remains an aggressive Them! riffin many respects it's just an identical movie (the sound design in particular is awfully familiar, even if it has more plot relevance here)but it does trade in the eeriness of Them!'s prologue for something a little punchier, with a pair of necking teens not long for this world, out at a lover's lane in Ludlow, Illinois.  Whatever it is that terrifies them from offscreen, all we know for now is that a little later a cop discovers the torn-up wreck of their car and the mysterious absence of bodies.  And he's not long for this world, either.

The next morning, we acquire a protagonist, or at least a co-lead, in the person of photojournalist Audrey Aimes (Peggie Castle), who's traveling through the Illinois countryside only to be met by a military roadblock on the outskirts of Ludlow.  She sneaks around to have a look anyway, and is horrified to find the town destroyed.  Taking a firm but cordial stance with the authorities, Aimes assumes the disaster must be some atomic cover-up, but she's surprised to discover that there's nothing radioactive anywhere near Ludlow except for a piddly Department of Agriculture research facility run by two scientists, entomologist Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves) and radiation-scarred deaf-mute botanist Frank Johnson (Than Wyenn).  Lacking any better leads, she visits their installation and beholds their works, a radiological greenhouse that's given life to a cornucopia of giant fruits and vegetables, which Wainwright promises could grow even bigger if they didn't limit their nutrients.  He's briefly distracted, however, by a blight of snails, whereupon he notes how difficult it is to keep pests out of the lab.  The movie's not about snails; perhaps this is unfortunate.  But he mentions some grasshoppers.

In fairness to Aimes and Wainwright, they don't know they're in a sci-fi movie, so it takes them a small while to piece together the clues: the lack of any bodies and the vegetation removed by the root; the signs that while all the people in Ludlow have vanished, they fired their weapons at some unknown enemy; the curious collapse of a grain silo some days earlier, that looks more like it was pushed apart from inside; and, particularly, the extremely subtle indications that the gigantic screeching mutant locust that eats the deaf guy just might have something to do with Wainwright's radioactive super-food.  From there, it's not long before the military's anti-grasshopper capabilities are tested and found wanting, and very soon the locusts have occupied Chicago.  The military contemplates dropping an A-bomb on America's third city, but before zero hour comes, Wainright hopes that he can cook up a desperate super-scientific miracle to save the day.

For all the parallels, this is where BotE makes a pretty definitive break from the Them! rubric, and becomes very much its own thing.  To begin with, it's nice to see a sci-fi movie set somewhere in America other than one of the coasts, or the desert.  More importantly, the big bug movies have a real tendency towards anticlimaxes, yet BotE just breezily passes that by without seeming to even be aware that this is meant to be one of the "classy" limitations of the form.  Its genre-mates tend to err on the side of a certain "realism"a weird way to put it, maybe, but at least a recognition that a hive of giant ants, or a giant tarantula, or a giant mantis, while each extremely dangerous, is essentially still just a scaled-up pest that can be exterminated with an appropriately scaled-up effort.  Them!, with its army of enormous ants, talks the talk, but it can't fully establish them as an existential threat to the State of California, let alone our species.

Gordon isn't afraid of his monsters looking ridiculousboy howdy, he isn'tand has no compunction against making them impervious to virtually any human weapon.  It's not even trying to be plausible, and it's not even consistent about its own implausibilitywhen it's Wainwright holding the puny submachine gun, suddenly bullets start working again (and when Wainwright goes out to capture a live test subject for his last-ditch efforts to discover the locusts' weakness, you're left to wonder why they don't keep using that knock-out gas, because the knock-out gas works perfectly)but Gordon isn't one to sweat such matters, and he had determined that his big bugs would be apocalyptic.  Thus we have the spectacle (the qualified spectacle, but the spectacle) of a Biblical plague enlarged for an atomic age, swarming out of the Great Plains and into Chicago, promising famine and the collapse of civilization just by their sheer rapacity, but so fearsome in their direct, physical onslaught that the humanitarian disaster they've already caused can't even be a stated priority.  Hell, they're so effective that Gordon has to turn around and nerf the monsters he's invented, by removing their usual ability to fly!  And so the film is charged with the conviction of its title: maybe it really is the beginning of the end for our kind, because it'll take all our smarts (and a neat twist ending) to save us, not just a flamethrower detachment or anonymous men in a fighter jet.

It's awfully goofy, then, but fortunately it's anchored by one of B-grade sci-fi's most potent leading men in Graves, who unfortunately wasn't in all that many of these things (and even fewer good ones), and may or may not be trying to smuggle a guilty suicidal streak into his conscience-laden science-man here (Wainwright says he "feels like" he's responsible, which is about the least he could feel).  But I don't mean it's a deep performance: it's simply that Graves almost feels like he himself was created in a lab to stand in for robust scientific authority, a Rex Reason who isn't a dick, a Richard Carlson who isn't kind of a weenie.  He has just the right physicality (and even more importantly, just the right voice) to make, well, deeply grave pronouncements about the silliest things.  He's flawlessly self-serious, giving tacit permission to every viewer to earnestly go along for the ride with him, or to have a good time laughing at the contrasts between his stolid Gravesiness and all the nonsense surrounding him.  The balance goes to seriousness, though: both Graves and Castle alike really sell the prospect of evil grasshoppers as something you could legitimately be scared by.

This is absolutely crucial because Gordon can't sell that prospect himself; BotE might have a much better reputation if he could.  He puts the work in, to be sure: the reputation BotE has probably isn't even entirely down to the double-exposure effects or the recourse to stock footage and rear-projection; given the budgetary level and time period, these are even reasonably okay.  I'll go so far as to say that Gordon makes a good go of it whenever he can keep his action fixed to a single axis perpendicular to the screen: all the shots of men firing blanks through a soundstage treeline at hugely blown-up footage of grasshoppers, supplemented by insert shots of tanks and stuff to give their combat scope, are all more-or-less fine, leaving aside the extreme mismatches in photography.

Things are less persuasive whenever things move off the z-axis, and Gordon's actors and stock footage have to be composited together with double-exposed grasshoppers reluctantly responding to stimuli in ways vaguely indicative of a giant locust army swarming across the landscape.  Inevitably, there's not much Gordon can do to have his grasshoppers actually interact with their composited environments, and accordingly this is pretty much exclusively left to shrieking faces, twitchy insects, suggestive editing, and just plain old-fashioned descriptive dialogue.

But then, the locusts do infamously have one environment to interact with, and everything heretofore described still works at an infinitely higher level than BotE's climax, whereupon Gordon, testing what the term "special effect" can even signify, resorts to grasshoppers walking across printed photographs of various Chicago landmarks like the Wrigley Building.  And even I can't excuse movie magic this lo-fi:

Happily, the rest is genuine "real movie" product: Gordon acquits himself well enough that it's frankly hard to square his first two films with the director of this, and it's not even entirely thanks to a better screenplay, though that certainly helps.  There are actual filmmaking fundamentals at play in Gordon's direction: take, for example, the deep staging of the scene where the military muckety-mucks skeptically dismiss Wainwright and Aimes's direr predictions and the central duo are about to leave out of the doors in the back of the room, only to pause to eavesdrop on a frantic phone conversation in the foreground that lets us know the other shoe has definitively droppedthis would be relatively impressive from a mid-level studio director, let alone the guy who made King Dinosaur and The Cyclops.  Constrained by a budget-conscious script obliged to resemble a radio play as much as a motion picture, Gordon basically just leans into the opportunity this affords for mysterious atmosphere.  He gets a lot of mileage out of strategically (you could argue "bashfully") withholding the visual components of his narrative, and carefully staging their reveals later, so that, for instance, it feels like he's making a choice to pull the rug out from under you, rather than simply making a mistake, when the most important events of film's second act occur entirely offscreen while our heroes were looking in the wrong direction.  But it's not even momentarily badly-paced, either; it's damn near proto-Spielberg.

There's no getting around the lousiness of some of the effects work, and at the end of the day it's a dumb movie about giant insects, and prone to a few unforced errors (it's a little dumbfounding because it seems such easy Screenwriting 101, but the script decides to cancel the bomber mission before the climax has fully played out, instead of using it to amp the tension right till the end).  But I've always liked Beginning of the End; it's where the name of this whole review series comes from, insofar as the film culminates in science fiction rendered by way of literal cardboard.  If you have to cut it a whole rope's worth of slack, there are many much worse B-movies to spend a sleepless a.m. with.

Score: 7/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Wainwright explains that his super-food is not, in fact, radioactive or mutated itself; it is instead the result of the constant artificial "sunlight" provided by exposure to the decay of radioactive isotopes, allowing his plants to grow twenty-four hours a day.  So he 1)doesn't understand how photosynthesis works, which is with visible light; and 2)is using uranium to do what electric light bulbs have been able to do for like sixty or seventy years by this point.  Science!
  • If they can't fly, I guess it's really just the beginning of the end for North and South America, but that's a pretty long title.
  • Evacuating Chicago on such short notice is presumably pretty unrealistic itself.
  • I'm not exactly sure how or if radiation could make you deaf (or mute), yet leave you otherwise functional.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • When Wainwright tells Aimes to leave his doomed outpost in Chicago she literally just says "no," and that's pretty much the end of the discussion.
  • The military comes off pretty badly: even once they accept the truth of giant grasshoppers, they glibly take the most "minimal force" posture you could possibly imagine.
  • Relatedly, you'd think the U.S. military would be able provide several distinct levels of combat intensity between "direct fire against heavily-armored grasshoppers" and "MIGHT AS WELL NUKE CHICAGO."
  • But maybe that's purposeful, considering that the pilot of the B-36 is so visibly bummed that he does not, in fact, get to drop an atomic weapon on an American metropolis.
  • Inevitably diminished by Gordon's garage effects, but there's a sense of giddy mystery here that works really well, and the final super-science gambit reaffirming human supremacy is pretty great.

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