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Empire of the Ants
Tonight's Feature Presentation

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)

Starring: Joan Collins, Robert Lansing, John David Carson, Pamela Shoop, Edward Power, Robert Pine

Written By: Jack Turley, Bert I. Gordon (screen story) Directed By: Bert I. Gordon

The Short Version

Of course this bears no real resemblance to an HG Wells story.

Joan Collins called this the worst acting experience of her life.

Bert I. Gordon can’t direct his way out of a paper bag.

This movie exists specifically to be made fun of.

Watch it with friends; it’s more fun that way.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

FAT FREE CREAM CHEESE.

This stuff can’t be good for you.  They’ve taken out a lot of the stuff that’s supposed to give it flavor and replaced it with too much preservative salt.  But hey, it’s what’s already on the crackers at the picnic table.  What’s the worst that could happen?


Pairs Well With...

RUM & COKE.

The staple of many a salesperson’s pitch table.  Besides, in this Empire, it’s all about sugar, and hey, Rum is one of the more fun things you can make out of sugar!  Just keep it bottom shelf.  They’re not paying for glamour here.

“What took you so long?”

“Oh, I stopped to get some extra liquor.”


This exchange of dialogue happens within the first five minutes of Empire of the Ants.  Take the hint, folks, and do what the man says.  You’ll have way more fun if you do.

That’s the key to this movie, really.  If you picked it up because the title dares to carry an “HG Wells” prefix, I’ll toss you a freebie: the only things this movie bothered to steal from Wells were the title and one or two smatterings of concept.  (You can actually find the story for free online if you want to read it, and no place therein will you find the line “You’re so terrific in the sack that it almost justifies the excessive salary I have to pay you.”)  So for that tiny percentage of “serious” science fiction fans who might have considered something thoughtful to be afoot even with a title like Empire of the Ants, consider yourselves disillusioned.

So, for the rest of you, and by that I mean “everyone.”  There is only one reason to watch a movie like Empire of the Ants.  To approach it with any other purpose is not just folly, but it is in fact a sign of poor judgment and can only lead to annoyance and perhaps a bit of a headache.  This singular reason, this One Great Truth for which Empire of the Ants continues to exist, is, of course, to be made fun of.

First, though, a little history.

Once upon a time, there was a gent named Bert I. Gordon, who liked to trade on his initials after someone started calling him Mr. BIG.  Back in the 50s, Gordon made his name working on movies that centered on the theme of big things wreaking havoc; movies with titles like King Dinosaur, The Amazing Colossal Man, and War of the Colossal Beast.  But these types of movies went out of fashion after a while… until some dude named Spielberg made some flick about a nasty shark in 1975.  The Hollywood bandwagon being what it is, Gordon jumped at the chance to get back into his old game, and one of the results is Empire of the Ants.    However, as has often been pointed out, even though the rest of the world had aged twenty years, Gordon hadn’t.  And so, despite the fact that it was the late 1970s, he made his movie as though it were still the 1950s.  Same visual effects.  Same radioactive barrels.  Same science lecture to start things off.  Only real differences are that now he gets to use color stock, and he’s allowed to have divorcees as characters.  Many people have had a field day trashing him for this (there’s a lot of hate for this movie out there), and if it were still 1977 or at least reasonably close thereto, I’d probably do the same.  But it’s not 1977.  It’s almost three and a half decades later.  For many people, there’s now no appreciable difference between how far in the past Empire of the Ants and War of the Colossal Beast are, since both qualify as “before much of the audience was born.”  I’m sure there’s even an idealist or two who might try to pull out the “retro” argument.  While I’m not going to play that much of a sucker, I am still going to give Gordon a pass here.  Call it being grandfathered out by the calendar, if you must... and I may have another reason, too.

Not that the pass counts for much, mind, because even given that grace, Gordon still made himself a lousy movie on almost every level imaginable.

There’s no getting around it, folks.  Empire of the Ants is bad.  The pacing is nonexistent.  It takes forever for the action to get started, and once it does, there’s no excitement.  Empire of the Ants has all the tension of a wet noodle, and you’re likely to experience more drama waiting for the person in front of you at Starbucks to try to decide what kind of latte to order than you are at any point during this movie.  Acting?  There’s next to no acting here.  The technical term for what you’re looking at is somnambulism, better known as sleepwalking.  Joan Collins (who in the following decade would achieve her greatest fame as the biggest bitch on television in “Dynasty”) has called her time on this film the worst acting experience of her life, and yet at least she kind of gives it a go, if only to make a halfhearted effort to cover up her accent for no apparent reason.  The rest of the cast either flounders or just shows up for the check.  Not that they could have felt very motivated; Bert I. Gordon makes it abundantly clear that he can’t direct his way out of a paper bag.  And as for the script…

If you’re looking for a sympathetic character, forget it.  The boat captain might’ve been your guy, but actor Robert Lansing seems too annoyed to be on camera for that.  It’s really obvious that the story wants to steer you to attractive blonde Coreen (Pamela Shoop; if you want to see what's under the sweater, watch Halloween II) – who provides a natural thermometer to tell you when she’s cold as soon as her shirt gets wet, much to the camera’s delight – but if you pay attention, she’s a gold digger who just broke off with an affair from a married guy, after which she cashed in all the gifts she got from him and ended up with enough money to buy a house.  The real estate pitchwoman played by Joan Collins?  She’s a scam artist.  To hell with what Jack Turley’s script wants; maybe we’re better off rooting for the ants.

Hold that thought.

The story these people are put in is the old cookie cutter.  People come to isolated area (made current to the 1970s as a tour of a real estate development, or as one character puts it, “a two bit cruise down the coast to look at overpriced swampland”), people meet monstrous insects made huge thanks to barrels of radioactive waste that were being dumped while the opening credits rolled.  People run and start getting picked off.  You might think it’s a twist when they reach a town, and if so, hey, good for you.  Others will see that for what it is and where it’s been done before right away, and when the ultimate reveal happens… I’ll just say if that if you want to see it done right, you need to watch Phase IV instead.  As for Empire of the Ants, again, there’s no tension, and the ending feels no less cheap than anything that came before.

So yes.  On just about every critical level that I can name, Empire of the Ants is a bad movie.

And yet…

 I admit it.  I had fond memories of Empire of the Ants.  And I don’t mean just childhood memories; I remember liking this movie as a rational adult.  As I started watching it again, it took me a little time to puzzle out how this could be possible.   Specifically, it took 28 minutes.  That, you see, is when the ants show up.

And giant ants are funny.

Absurdly, ridiculously funny.

That’s the second reason why I gave Bert I. Gordon the free pass earlier.  Had he used better special effects techniques here, Empire of the Ants might have been garbage beyond redemption.  With 1950s era giant ants, though, he’s made a prime candidate for “let’s make fun of the bad movie” night!

Here’s a suggestion for how you might best go about this for maximum enjoyment (barring, of course, ignoring the movie altogether and just going for it on the couch with your partner of choice, but that’s your own business and I’m not going there).  Put the movie in and let it start playing.  Don’t worry about what’s on the screen yet.  The first 28 minutes is just background noise, and the dialogue can be summed up with the phrase “the characters suck and deserve to be ant bait anyway.”  This should give you enough time to cook the frozen pizza, have your first round of drinks, and be ready with the second (or third) in time for the real fun to start.  Pizza cooked?  Great.  Grab a paper plate, take a few slices with you to the couch (along, of course, with your drink), and get ready to break what is normally one of my most sacrosanct rules:

Add your own soundtrack.

With a movie like this, you can’t help it.  Empire of the Ants begs for the MST3K treatment.  I mean, look at these ants!  They’re hilarious!  The giant, bigger-than-person-sized models used for close up shots are an absolute riot.  If you can’t giggle at watching these actors try to beat against these models, there’s something wrong with you.  The shots of real ants magnified and projected onto a backdrop is almost funnier, thanks to the miracle of a color picture.  These actors are freaking out at what is obviously a magnified shot of tiny ants that can’t possibly touch them and which looks exactly like the magnified shot they just saw somewhere else ten seconds ago.  The chase scenes are a scream.  And speaking of scream, see if you can tell whether that sound you hear is a woman screaming or the ants doing their thing.  If you want to, you can make a drinking game out of having to pay up every time you’re wrong.  Other games include “spot the wet shirt temperature gauge” and “Joan forgot to hide her accent again.”  The possibilities here are endless!

As are the possibilities for alternate dialogue that you might come up with.  Here, I’ll give you a free one for when you finally meet the Queen Ant:  “I fart in your general direction!”  (Mwhahaha. Once you’ve watched that scene with that phrase in mind, it will never leave your brain again!)

I think you’ve got the hang of it now.

Bottom line, with a movie as bad as Empire of the Ants, the best way to appreciate it is to take the trash it gives you and bring it on out the other side.  Some movies are horrible beyond redemption, but this one gives the audience the tools to turn the garbage into fun, and laughing is better than crying or swearing any day.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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