Monday, July 28, 2008

THE HIVE (2007) d. Peter Manus

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Man’s fear of what he can’t control and can’t understand has fueled many fine books and movies for a long time. We can’t control the weather and we can’t understand the deepest complexities of Creation, but neither of those forces holds the kind of primal terror as hordes of insects. Possibly this dread of bugs goes back to humankind’s earliest days when we battled with all of Earth’s creatures for dominion of the planet. Whether it’s bees, locusts, cockroaches or spiders (not an insect but they’ll do for now), and whether they are big and solitary or small and abundant, arthropods are an imposing species due to their durability, ingenuity and unpredictability, all of which makes them a foe worthy of respect and dismay. It is likely that no insect species inspires more horror than ants for their sheer strength in numbers and the “intelligence” that they display. There have been some fine “ant” movies over the years, most notably the giant creature-feature classic THEM (1954), but since that time many other fine examples of ant fare have come forth like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977). THE HIVE, starring Tom Wopat, Kal Weber and Elizabeth Healey is another Man vs. The Ants film following in the path of and borrowing from its predecessors, and having a degree of success in doing so.

THE HIVE is the story of a Pacific Island called Ban Tao (suspiciously similar to an Indonesian or Malaysian archipelago) and a terrifying ant infestation that threatens life on the atoll. A high-tech pest control squad called “Thorax”, led by Dr. “Len” Lennart (Kal Weber), is called in to rid the island of these voracious vermin. It doesn’t take long for the team to realize they are pitted against a foe too numerous and cunning to be easily bested. Len sends out his squad leaders Bill (Tom Wopat) and Cortez (Mark Ramsay) to spearhead a new attack, but even that can’t blunt the arthropod assault for long. It is only after the arrival of Dr. Claire Dobois (Elizabeth Healey) and her teamwork with Len and his assistant Debs (Jessica Reavis) that they discover these ants are highly sophisticated, capable of communication and that they have demands. Unorthodox methods are mixed with traditional science and careful diplomacy to find a solution to the “ant problem” before all is lost.

THE HIVE started out with a series of action scenes blended with some over-the-top performances and jingoistic fist-pumping and weapons glorification, and as a result it seemed like it was headed down the path of MEN IN BLACK or INDEPENDENCE DAY. While some of the battle sequences still had an element of that kind of ballyhoo, maybe even to the degree of STARSHIP TROOPERS, that potential mistake was averted. To THE HIVE’s great credit, the high octane start was just the hook and a false lead because for most of the rest of the film, it became more serious and developed some fine tension and drama. There were moments when some of the “cat & mouse” action was reminiscent of ALIEN (1979) and some of the ant attacks on human and their spreading menace recalled ANTS! (1977) aka IT HAPPENED AT LAKEWOOD MANOR. Even better, the science fiction element and the race to understand the intelligence guiding the ants came down squarely in the camp of PHASE IV (1974) and THE BEES (1978). As a result, this film had a very pleasant blend of action, intensity, contemplative science fiction and suspense. It was only in the closing acts that the pace slowed down inexplicably and then rushed into an unneeded romance and some very forced melodrama, causing the story a degree of disjointedness. Instead of ending on a note like THE BEES where an uneasy truce is established or a sadly triumphant victory is won as in THE NAKED JUNGLE (1954), there is a degree of grandstanding and even some harsh and strident political commentary. In the end, it is too bad because THE HIVE is one of the better additions to The Maneater Series. It takes itself seriously without being corny and has a sense of tension and horror that was absent from some of the other films of this collection.

From a technical standpoint, THE HIVE is a mixed bag. Shot on location in Krabi, Thailand, the scenery and landscapes all look authentic, as do the Thai extras filling out scenes of panicking villagers and grimly determined military conscripts. Many of the camera angles, establishing shots and editing sequences show some real creativity and sincere thought to composition. However, the use of handheld cameras for close-ups, many of which were FAR TOO CLOSE was grating and detracted from the feel of a film that seemed to be headed up the higher road. The CGI was very uneven. Some of it was very ambitious and worked fairly well, while at times it was exceedingly hokey. As I said in my review of VENGEANCE, Thai special effects crews are certainly making improvements and their efforts are sincere, but anyone expecting JURASSIC PARK quality effects needs to remember this was “made for television” and was done by a mostly Thai crew. There is no need for prejudice or parochialism, just understand what you are getting.

Most of the performances were solid, especially the very eccentric performance of Tom Wopat and the steady, leading man appeal of Kal Weber, but the Thai actors were a little unconvincing and wooden at times. There was absolutely no chemistry between Mr. Weber’s and Ms. Healey’s characters, probably through no fault of their own. Their romance seemed so obligatory, as if a “corporate suit” had demanded that it be stuck into the script, so that their love affair was totally disingenuous. The other technical problem of this dvd is the sound mix. Whether it is a problem with the 5.1 audio or the sound mixer’s mistake, I had to boost the volume on a regular basis, swerving drunkenly in between 25% and 85%, just to hear the dialogue that was as quiet as an ant’s antennae flicking in a pheromone-laden breeze. Someone needs to fix that problem or find funding to subsidize the purchase of HDTV units for all viewers in the U.S. My television is fairly new and in most dvds I can ascertain what is be said without too much trouble.

As has too often been the case with the films in The Maneater Series, there is nothing to be had in regards to a bonus features section. The disc starts with some auto-play trailers as is usual and there is a “play feature” and “scene selections” commands and that is it. If you’ve got Tom Wopat in your movie, you’ve got to get an interview with the former “Luke Duke” and have him describe the difference between battling sentient ants and villainous grubs like Boss Hogg. Having an empty extras menu is never a good idea, and while I felt a greater degree of warmth towards THE HIVE due to it being an entertaining film, some of that positive feeling evaporated when I saw that I was getting a bare bones disc. Without any extras, there is nothing to differentiate this viewing experience from seeing THE HIVE on Sci-Fi or Ion TV. It is essential to understand that in this very competitive market, having even a few tidbits will loosen the purse strings of consumers, especially when it comes to something like a film about Killer Ants. That’s a luxury that horror film lovers can do without if they don’t feel their money is well spent.

Making any “creature feature” is an immense challenge and to carry it off effectively is deserving of praise. THE HIVE is a film with its heart in the right place and it even has most of its eggs in the right basket. It is not “high-brow” science fiction or a blockbuster action film. It is a new addition to a long line of cinematic relatives, who saw that mining an instinctive fear will put people’s posteriors in theater seats or get them to sit down in front of a television, Swanson’s TV Dinner still puffing savory steam or Jiffy Pop still hot and crunchy. If you are looking for a flick that will update the idea of films like Bert I. Gordon’s BEGINNING OF THE END (1957) but will still stay fairly true to the inspirational spirit of the 50s “monster-rama”, then THE HIVE is worth your time. Expect that it will take you over very familiar ground, but that’s okay if you litter your evening with other old icons like Ballantine Beer. You’ll feel like time has skipped a beat and its Chiller Theater all over again.

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