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Chicago Tribune

22 April 2005

`Locusts' splatters with campy fun

By Sid Smith
Tribune arts critic
Published April 22, 2005

"You're not talking about kids," someone says with foreboding early on in the made-for-TV movie "Locusts." "You're talking about bugs."

When's the last time you encountered something so bad it's good? "Locusts" (8 p.m. Sunday, WBBM-Ch. 2) is just such an animal, or, to be more accurate, just such an insect, a quick, breezy, thoroughly tolerable sci-fi thriller no dumber than its modern cinematic counterparts ("Independence Day," "Day After Tomorrow") and jammed with a lot more unintentional laughs. If you're looking to be scared, look elsewhere.

But "Locusts" is instant TV camp, a throwback to those drive-in monster thrillers of the '50s, replacing the communist bugaboo with fears of ecological pollution or an Apocalypse brought about by moral decay: Choose your poison. And there are lines harder to swallow than the insect plot: "You screw with Nature, and Nature will screw with you."

The story, crafted from the tried-and-true formula dating back to "Frankenstein," tells of overreaching scientist Peter Axelrod (John Heard), who genetically engineers a super-locust immune to all known insecticides. When federal watchdogs shut down his lab, a few of the insects escape, some of them down the drainpipe. "You've created a bioweapon," he's informed.

Soon, there are deadly swarms in the Napa Valley and in eastern Pennsylvania, hell-bent on a midsection collision in the heart of the nation's breadbasket. Dr. Maddy Rierdon (Lucy Lawless), a USDA bug expert partly responsible for not halting Axelrod's research sooner, argues to top government honchos to go slow. But baddies with the Department of Defense suggest a radical poison that will eliminate 10 percent of the human populace while eradicating the locusts: Chemical warfare combats the biological variety.

There are bits of funny business throughout, some intentional, most of them not. A vehicle is labeled "Voracious Insect Mobile Unit." In the midst of an advice session with robed African tribesmen,a government official interrupts to engage in a fight with his wife via cell phone. In subtitles, we learn that one of the Africans says, "Americans know a lot about farming, but very little about women." One of the first signs of the coming locust plague occurs when one or two of the creatures splatter on a windshield, that bane to so many cross-country motorists.

Judging from the partially complete tape sent to reviewers, the special effects are nifty as the bugs devour Pittsburgh, the Napa Valley and whole fields of Indiana farmland, not to mention livestock and finally people. Even better is the cross-pollinating mix of murky motivations and thematic morals. Blue states get their red meat ("They're heading for Ohio!"), along with ecological insensitivity clearly pegged as one bad guy. Or is it our own misbehavior? To assuage the red-staters, an office worker in Pittsburgh, as the hordes hit the plate-glass window, quotes Revelations, telegraphing the movie's painfully obvious biblical allusions.

The people plot (Dr. Rierdon isn't paying enough attention to her hubby) is only slightly less ridiculous than the insect scenario. And there's a pleasing finish, complete with a deathbed repentance and a solution that in essence involves the construction of a giant, cross-country bug zapper.

There's no charge, of course, for the tele-movie. The microwave popcorn, however, is on you.