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New York News Day

22 April 2005

In 'Locusts,' disaster turns into high comedy

April 22, 2005

I was willing to give "Locusts" the benefit of the doubt. Though I've seen killer-insect movies that were awful - Irwin Allen's 1978 "The Swarm" to name one howler - I've also seen a few good thrillers. If your neighborhood video store has a copy of 1954's "The Naked Jungle," in which Charlton Heston takes on battalions of army ants in South America, rent it.

"Locusts" is promisingly creepy at the start. A lab assistant enters a glass cage humming with locusts, intending to feed them a couple of ficus bushes. Ominously, they get - how to put this? - a little familiar.

Then, the scene shifts to a bedroom where Maddy Rierdon (Lucy Lawless of "Xena: Warrior Princess" fame) is lolling about in her undies and a little silk robe. As she takes a phone call about the lab incident, a hunky fellow who looks like he poses for romance-novel covers strolls in clad only a towel. He's visibly bummed out when it's apparent that she has to leave.

"Dan," Undersecretary Rierdon says after she pulls a sweater over her bra, "we both knew what it meant when I accepted the post of undersecretary of Agriculture."

After that, keeping a straight face was no longer an option. Washington connections or not, this is no "West Wing." Or west wings, as the case may be.

Rierdon rushes to the lab, where Dr. Peter Axelrod (John Heard), her old college mentor, boasts that he's created a hybrid locust that can travel as far as 300 miles a day, reproduce 10 times faster than regular locusts and, oh yes, is immune to DDT and other known pesticides.

Rierdon is anything but impressed. "You think we need a genetically engineered super-locust?" she explodes. "Are you crazy?"

Either that or wildly misguided. He is a scientist in a sci-fi horror movie, after all.

Axelrod assures her that his locusts are "contained." Sure they are. A few escape the fiery extermination Rierdon orders, and before you can rub your hind legs together, they've reproduced about a billion fold. They're terrorizing campgrounds and school buses, chewing up California vineyards and citrus groves, and hovering over Pittsburgh in a dark cloud the size of which hasn't been seen there since the heyday of the steel mills. The big fear at USDA and the Pentagon is that they'll converge on the Midwest, scarf up all the grain and grow so strong they'll be - gasp - unstoppable.

More than once in the movie, a character makes reference to locust plagues foretold in the Bible as signs of the approaching End. Armageddon may be all the rage of TV these days, but "Locusts" isn't buying into it. This is a man-made problem, one scientist says, and man has to solve it.

The movie attempts to raise serious questions about casualty tolerance in time of crisis: The military has a nerve gas that will kill the locusts - and as much as half of the human population in the process. But if the alternative is letting the locusts create a worldwide famine in which everybody starves, what then?

Unfortunately, the movie inadvertently distracts us with other vexing questions. For instance, why does Undersecretary Rierdon go hunting for voracious locust swarms wearing a tank top?

Don't let my sarcasm put you off, though. "Locusts" is a must-see. Kudos to CBS for resurrecting two neglected TV-movie genres in one fell swoop: the deadly-insect thriller and the feature-length comedy.

LOCUSTS. Swarms of bio-engineered locusts threaten to eat America's grain belt in a CBS movie that's more laughs than most of its sitcoms. Premieres Sunday night at 9 on CBS/2.