See It Instead: Ant-Man
Marvel’s latest offering hasn’t lit a fire in my heart, so if you’re in the same boat as me, here are three films from yesteryear that may hold your interest.
A reformed jewel thief and a reclusive inventor team up to steal a prototype super-suit that allows the user to shrink in size while gaining phenomenal strength. The Ant-Man armor also allows the user to control insects, which is ideal if you’re going into the termite removal business. The military is apparently impressed with those two features, so the pair of Ant-Men must prevent the awesome (I guess?) powers of the suit from falling into evil hands. Along the way, we get to see a bug’s eye view of the world, which Marvel hopes will distract you from the fact that this is basically Iron Man 1 all over again, just with a suit that is way less impressive.
The Serious Pick: Them! (1954)
The horrors of the atomic age become manifest in giant mutated ants so horrific, they are known only as Them!
Investigating an attack on a family in the New Mexico dessert, a patrolman and an FBI agent discover a trail of destruction and mysterious animal tracks. Seperating to cover more ground (always a great idea in a monster movie) the patrolman is overcome by the creature and killed. The FBI agent decides he better get some help, and returns to Washington with a young survivor and the details of the killings. Two scientists from the department of agriculture piece together the evidence: giant irradiated ants, created by the atomic bomb tests during WW2, have established a colony and are growing in number and aggression. A division is sent in with gas and machine guns, and just barely manage to eradicate the brood…but not before two juvenile queens are able to escape! The race is on to find the queen ants before they can set up a new colony and threaten the entire planet.
Them! is one of a handful of monster movies to tackle the fallout of nuclear weaponry with a straight face. Everything about this movie feels somber and serious: the news bulletins warning of dire times, the speeches made by scientists to government agencies promising an extinction of the human race, and major characters essentially turning to the camera and saying “well, I guess we’re fucked as a species!” Much like the original Godzilla, Them! is serious as a heart-attack….but it’s also a lot of fun! The sheer malevolent joy with which the director pours rivers of bullets, rockets, and flames at the monsters is astounding. They must have gotten a bulk deal on giant ant monsters (which look pretty decent, all things being equal) because they are certainly not shy about burning, mutilating and blowing up their props. See this film if you want the the serious tone of Godzilla mixed with the gleeful destruction of monsters of Pacific Rim.
The Lighthearted Pick: Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Rick Moranis is a small time inventor and struggling family man. His latest invention, a machine to miniaturize things (for, you know, reasons scientific) instead performs a decent impression of the Death Star, blowing up everything it touches. One day, the neighbor’s kids hit a baseball into Rick’s workshop, bonking the machine into working order and shrinking both Moranis’ two children and the two children from next door when they all try to retrieve the ball. Shrunk down to ant size, the four children must band together to survive the giant obstacle course that their world has become and somehow get the attention of their families and get unshrunk.
Disney went to great lengths to construct gigantic sets where blades of grass tower like trees, Lego bricks are the size of a hotel, and normal junk like pencils and cotton swabs double as spears and clubs. There is some early digital work, though the film prefers to use classical techniques such as forced-perspective and stop motion puppetry. An action sequence in which the children befriend a worker ant and help it to battle a giant scorpion is such a wonderful blend of high and low tech special effects that it becomes one of the best scenes in the film. The journey of the children through their backyard and back into their home is every bit as harrowing and fun as a trip with the Gooneys, and Rick Moranis is priceless as a diminutive Nutty Professor.
The Unconventional Pick: The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981)
Lilly Tomlin gives a striking performance as a house wife trapped in suburbia. As she goes about her day to day life, she comes into contact with a dozen house-hold chemicals of dubious safety, and the witch’s brew of substances, aided by a prototype perfume she is given by her husband who works as and advertizing executive, begin to have a toxic effect on Tomlin: slowly but surely she begins to shrink.
At first, this news is a source of amusement, and she even becomes a small celebrity to both her neighbors and the nation when she makes a string of appearances on daytime talk shows. As the process speeds up, though, and Tomlin is forced to live inside her children’s doll house, her condition becomes life threatening. Not only is she shrinking faster now, but a rogue group of scientists want to study her and replicate her shrinking disorder…in order to take over the world!
The Incredible Shrinking Woman has had a mixed critical history. Reviewers were mildly positive about the film, but audiences by and large passed over the film. It’s not hard to guess why this may be: for a comedy, this movie is wildly subversive. Tomlin’s quirky and “gee whiz” style of comedy is a clever cover for a message about how modern suburban life marginalizes and silences women. The chemicals that begin to shrink her are all targeted at women: hair products, cosmetics, perfume, household cleaners and food additives. When she begins to shrink, she is made into a curiosity, and increasingly infantilized. The climax of the film, which I can still remember vividly after 20 years, has Tomlin delivering a tearful goodbye and exhortation to avoid her fate just as she shrinks out of existence. The Incredible Shrinking Woman is a comedy with teeth, and while there are plenty of silly laughs, there’s also a message behind the madness.