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Editor's Note: We are republishing this October 2004 Anti Gravity column by Steve Mirsky as part of our in-depth report on Science at the Movies.
I’m not referring to some horror movie monster, although that’s what the line most likely conjures up in the imagination. I’m talking about May R. Berenbaum and Richard J. Leskosky, who have once again teamed up to write a scholarly piece sure to interest all fans of the science in science fiction.
Berenbaum is head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois, and Leskosky is assistant director of the Unit for Cinema Studies at the same institution.
Over a decade ago the married couple wrote “Life History Strategies and Population Biology in Science Fiction Films,” an article showing that the overwhelming majority of invading aliens in sci-fi movies are doomed by their own biology. [See “Nothing Personal, You’re Just Not My Type,” Science and the Citizen, Scientific American, February 1995.] Most sci-fi flicks feature more or less human-size creatures that show up and expect to be running things in no time. True, that approach actually worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but in real life, successful colonizers tend to be small organisms that produce huge numbers of offspring—for example, insects and studio executives.
More recently, Berenbaum and Leskosky wrote a piece for movie bugs on movie bugs: “Insects in Movies” appears in the new volume Encyclopedia of Insects. The entry reveals that moviemakers sometimes step all over bugs. “What constitutes an insect in cinema is not necessarily consistent with scientific standards,” Berenbaum and Leskosky write. “In the taxonomy of cinema, any jointed-legged, segmented organism with an exoskeleton is likely to be classified as an insect, irrespective of how many legs or how few antennae it possesses.” No less a polymath than Sherlock Holmes seemingly can’t count. He incorrectly refers to a spider as an insect in 1944’s Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman, which is about as elementary an entomological error as you can make. (And, yes, bugs should not technically be used as a synonym for insects, but we’re taking etymological license.)
“Insect pheromones figure prominently in insect fear films,” Berenbaum and Leskosky note, although in the 1978 movie The Bees, the characters call the chemical communication compounds “pherones.” Lose the “er,” too, and the insects could just call each other.
Berenbaum and Leskosky point out that although pheromones exist throughout nature, including in humans, they are rarely encountered in film in organisms other than insects. But 1977’s Empire of the Ants acknowledges the human susceptibility to pheromonic influence: “Giant ants,” Berenbaum and Leskosky explain, “use pheromones to enslave the local human population and to compel the humans to operate a sugar factory for them.” In Florida, this same phenomenon is called agribusiness.
And let’s talk about humongous ants. “A recurring conceit in insect films is the violation of the constraint imposed by the ratio of surface area to volume,” write the arthropod aficionados. As body size increases, the ratio of surface area to volume decreases. Insects get their oxygen by taking in air through openings on their body surface, and if they got big enough the demands of all that volume on the relatively small surface would suffocate them. And when they molted, losing their chitinous corset, they would literally sag to death. Gregor Samsa did not awake one morning to find that he had been turned into a gigantic insect.
Obstinate insects have even played a fundamental role in movie history, inspiring one of the earliest efforts in stop-action animation, the 1910 short film Battle of the Stag Beetles. Entomologist Wladyslaw Starewicz first tried filming stag beetles in action, but like many temperamental actors, they objected to the hot lights and refused to perform. “Accordingly,” Berenbaum and Leskosky write, “[Starewicz] dismembered the beetles and wired their appendages back onto their carcasses, painstakingly repositioning them for sequential shots.” Using that same technique, just think of the performances you could get out of the Hilton sisters.