NOVEMBER 11, 2010
For the most part, while still passably entertaining, Empire Of The Ants is one of the weaker post-Jaws giant _____ movies, due to the lack of any good characters, a lethargic pace, and a dulling sameness to most of the "giant ant" scenes. But a decent (read: batshit silly) twist in the final reel saves it from being a total waste of time.
Without Shatner (Kingdom of the Spiders), decent effects (Food of the Gods), or variety (Food, again, plus Frogs and Day of the Animals), Empire's creators clearly realized that in order to compete, they had to think outside the box (it doesn't seem to have come from the Wells short story). Thus, rather than have the typical evil human who screws over the other humans to save himself (and possibly profit, somehow - see: Nedry), we meet a whole bunch of folks who have discovered that we can work with the ants after some simple brain-washing (delivered via gas from an imprisoned ant - sure, why not). And it's not even some crazy scientist who explains this, it's a rather dim small town sheriff, who more or less says "We should be working for the ants, they're superior to us anyway."
This is actually foreshadowed in the first minute of the film, where a narrator tells us (over ant footage): "This is the ant. Treat it with respect." and later queries "Have you ever taken a good close look at what the ant is all about?" (I must admit, I haven't, and a Bert I. Gordon movie won't change that). But I forgot all about it until the plot twist came around, because right after this peculiar prologue we dive headfirst into a straight 25-30 minutes of boring real estate talk. Our heroes are mostly prospective investors in a Florida resort, and they're all together in order for landowner Joan Collins to show them the site and convince them to invest so construction can begin. It's bad enough none of this stuff has killer ants (or even really the threat of them, save for maybe one lone POV shot of an ant watching them), but it's just unforgivably dull to boot. Unless you're a realtor or time-share partner, I cannot fathom how anyone would find this stuff compelling.
Once the ants finally show up it picks up, and admirably keeps the ant attacks coming at a steady clip. Unfortunately, they're pretty much all the same: our heroes run around for a bit, one of them will yell "Stop!" or something, and then Gordon will cut to a wide shot of our heroes on the left side of the frame with a composited shot of actual ants on the other side, complete with a big blurry oval around them. He never even reverses the approach - they are ALWAYS on the right side of the screen. When they actually kill someone things improve - some crew members will thrash our actors with scale, otherwise immobile props. Of course, this means their size is always fluctuating from the closeups to the wide shots, but at least they didn't opt for too many obvious miniatures.
Our characters are a pretty bland lot. Robert Lansing is fine, but the others are interchangeable (except for the guy who looks like Will Ferrell playing one of his spacey characters), to the extent that it took me a while to recognize Halloween II's Pamela Susan Shoop as one of the comely lasses who spend most of the movie running and screaming. Even Joan Collins (no relation, as far as I know) barely registers after a few minutes, though (spoiler) I was still surprised she died at the end, given that she's easily the biggest star but doesn't really die a hero like in your Armageddons and what not.
And what do we have for the obligatory Jaws swipes? Well, the music is a direct copy from John Williams at times, and the mayor seems to be a bit of an ass, but at least there's no big town event to worry about. There IS the sugar refinery, however, which leads to one of the film's sillier moments (one of the ladies, after being chased by ANTS for the past day or so, ponders why someone warns her to stay away from the sugar refinery) and is an obvious target, though at least that's where the wacky twist occurs, instead of something that the town higher-ups are trying to save or whatever.
One final note to people making films in the 1970s - we do not need a zoomed in cutaway of the word "FLAMMABLE" on a truck. As far as I'm concerned (based on every other 1970s genre film I've ever seen), all vehicles are a spark or gunshot (if that much) away from exploding regardless of their contents. It is understood that anything that happens to them will cause an explosion. Ironically, said explosion here is pretty lame. You'd think that with its "FLAMMABLE" cargo that the resulting explosion would be pretty huge/awesome, but it's actually fairly disappointing. Even if it was carrying, I dunno, teddy bears I would expect something bigger and better. So the cutaway was even MORE pointless!
What say you?