The Hellstrom Chronicle

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December 13, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

“The Earth was created not with the gentle caress of love, but with the brutal violence of rape.”

Uttered by Dr. Hellstrom, who describes himself as a scientist obsessed with his work though others may call him a fanatic, these words succinctly set the tone for the work to follow. It’s a thesis, if you will. Hellstrom is convinced that man will not survive his present circumstances and that the insect, who has survived invisibly for far longer, will supersede man. There is nothing new about this proposition. Even the credits tell us that Hellstrom, a fictional character played with utter conviction by the prolific Lawrence Pressman, is a composite or a synthesis of popular scientific thought of the time, this being the early ’70s. The difference here is that Hellstrom proceeds to demonstrate why the insect will continue to exist long after man does not.

Before directing the weird, Stevie Wonder-scored documentary The Secret Life of Plants, Walon Green made this entomological quasi-drama, originally promoted as a science fiction thriller, that won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1972, continuing a trend that started with Peter Watkins’ brilliant The War Game of the Academy being flatly confused by fictional films that masquerade as documentaries or vice-versa. Nothing wrong with this selection, however, because it is mostly documentary footage of natural life, though it’s combined with fiction in a way that suggest something more.

What unfolds is some of the most eye-poppingly exquisite time-lapse photography, montage and micro-documentation of the insect class you’re ever likely to see as the camera gets very intimate with just a few of its sprawling permutations. The pattern is that Hellstrom will describe behaviors that separate man and insect while a cascade of images demonstrate these predilections—one gets a distinct sense that Hellstrom is on their side as he regards their lack of intellect and unification of purpose ideal. He tells us man slays and breeds out of an instinct of greed while the insect does so with reason and that the insect adapts itself, endlessly seeking to perfect what nature has bestowed upon it, while man radically changes the environment to suit his momentary needs. There’s more than one environmentalist digression on pollution, particularly the hot-button issue at the time of the use of pesticides in protecting crops. We witness the catastrophic raids of the locust, and the Pyrrhic victory of farmers whose fly-bys with crop-dusting planes, battered by legions of locust bodies as they hopelessly spray DDT, are equally catastrophic.

We are treated to variations on the selflessness of the insect, the perfect, albeit spartan, harmony with which bees and termites and ants build and maintain their kingdoms. This is highlighted by a scene that shows honeybees tending their hive in captivity. Hellstrom removes the queen bee just to see what happens—and what very quickly happens is the worker bees assemble and go into action, transforming several larval bees into dormant queens by feeding them what’s known as royal jelly. Once any two of them hatch, the workers surround them (mere moments after birth) like Thunderdome goons and force them to fight to the death with the victor being declared the new queen. Drones are then made to chase and impregnate the virgin queen and once accomplished the drones are banished from the hive to starve to death.

This surely bests 2008’s Rambo for on-screen kills, though none are human. Even the good scientist blasts some derelicts with his garden hose and we see their wet deaths in slow-motion. This is a thick slab of nihilism, cut from the white megalith of science. Hellstrom’s tone coupled with Lalo Schifrin’s dramatic and often terrifying music combine with the probing photography to create something very close to a natural horror film. David Seltzer, future writer of The Omen, pens some excellent bits of monologue here, some damn poetic brilliance. Pressman delivers the words with such scientific conviction that he’s difficult to argue with. Man is almost chided by Hellstrom merely for being capable of abstract thought, for contemplating his existence:

“Of the billions of living things on Earth, only Man ponders his existence. His questions lead to torment, for he is unable to accept, as the insects do, that life’s only purpose is life itself.”

Saul Bass must have seen this film when he made his pseudo sci-fi/natural horror/thriller masterpiece Phase IV1 a few years later as its plot is the logical continuation of ideas present here. Photographed by celebrated cinematographer Dick Bush who got his start incidentally with Watkins on his Culloden, Phase IV takes place at a desert outpost for scientific research as it’s overwhelmed by highly intelligent ants (all of them, every species joining forces against man) who trigger armageddon by the film’s end. The ants are first introduced with the film itself in documentary mode and events afterward are ominously summed by a surviving scientist: “We knew then, that we were being changed… and made part of their world. We didn’t know for what purpose… but we knew, we would be told.”

Another excellent film obviously inspired by The Hellstrom Chronicle was 2006’s La citadelle assiégée (aka The Besieged Fortress), a film that documents the real struggle between ant and termite over the course of several intense days. While the subject is a footnote in this film which utilizes it to very different ends, Philippe Calderon’s film builds the traditional antagonism between the two orders into a war film in epic mode, with no evidence of humankind. If you liked the Earth mini-series you’d do well to check this out as the photographic techniques on display are head-scratching and awesome. Both visually and tonally, the dramatization of nature footage owes a huge debt to The Hellstrom Chronicle as well as Saul Bass’ seminal sci-fi.

Preceding the climactic (if you can call it that) footage of terrible columns of driver ants, is a philosophic digression on the mayfly. The doctor tells us that adult mayflies live for anywhere between a few minutes to a day. Sometimes an entire brood, an entire generation, will spring forth from their aquatic womb and fly up and up with abandon over a single stream or lake, male brushing past female, and when they drop, their wing muscles having been exhausted and their sole mission accomplished, the ones who land back in the water will deposit their seed in their very tomb. Hellstrom talks about their hours-long ecstasy, which takes place only to give rise to the next generation of mayflies as time-lapse photography again captures the fleeting life of the insect. This is sort of a microcosmic event that sums up all life on earth, and Hellstrom wonders in double entendre, “are their minutes like our years? Or our years more like their minutes?”

1 A film illogically spoofed by MST3k in its fledgling season.

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