“The earth was created not through the gentle caress of love, but through the brutal violence of rape.” So begins the improbable 1972 Best Documentary Oscar-winner The Hellstrom Chronicle, a deliciously hyperbolic insect study that marries beautiful microphotography with a Herzogian view of nature as a deceptively idyllic stage that sings with the relentless harmony of murder. It has, as its narrator, one Dr. Nils Hellstrom, an irreverent doomsayer who claims that his name has been connected with words like “fanatic” and “heretic,” and who claims to have lost “two fellowships, one assistant professorship, and even a few friendships” as a result of his revelations about the coming insect takeover. Except Hellstrom isn’t a real scientist, he’s a fictional character, played by Edward Pressman, who gives statements with basis in fact. Apparently there were no actual experts hammy enough to do the job.
To a large degree, The Hellstrom Chronicle is a camp relic of the ’70s, a documentary that’s so committed to blowing up the format that it makes its own conclusions seem laughable. And yet, taken in the right spirit, it’s a wondrously entertaining, hypnotic demonstration of an inarguable point: Insects were around millions of years before mankind came into being, and they’ll be around millions of years after we’re gone. Hellstrom makes it sound like some diabolical plot, but the film’s footage of Venus flytraps, praying mantises, ant colonies, beehives, and other societies serve a simpler thesis that insects are primitive yet exacting (and pitiless) in function, and simply more capable of adapting to change than any other creatures on Earth. There’s nothing heretical in the least about Hellstrom’s assertions, save maybe for the shameless fear-mongering that makes the film seem more like a ’50s science-fiction shocker than a cool assessment of the environment. (Sample: “The industrial waste that poisons our air, the DDT that poisons our food source, the radiation that destroys our very flesh are to the insect, nothing more than a gentle perfume.”)
Produced more than 20 years before Microcosmos dazzled audiences with its own giant insects, The Hellstrom Chronicle offers close-ups of beetles locked in mortal combat, an ant colony taking down a giant lizard, and a black widow spider, insect-kind’s great seductress, luring its prey as ’70s porno music floods the soundtrack. And in case viewers are wondering whether the great insect scourge can be thwarted by, say, a big shoe, the film counters with an astonishing scene in which Hellstrom blasts an anthill and a beehive with a garden hose. (He claims that mankind would take two million years to rebuild from “Adam and Eve” after such a catastrophic event, whereas insects need but two weeks.) The Hellstrom Chronicle gives viewers license to stomp on the next malevolent bug they see, with the caveat that such gestures are ultimately futile. The planet is theirs.
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