Field Guide to Invertebrates in Film: The Hellstrom Chronicle

The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

Critter: Multiple members of the phylum Arthropoda

Size: Varies

Modus Operandi: Through their capacities for speedier adaptation, insects are taking over the world and ousting humanity in the process

How the Menace Emerges: Evolution and a bit of thoughtlessness on the part of humanity

End Goal: World domination

Winner of the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle is an oddity: part documentary, part science fiction, all eco-terror. On the whole, it is a nature documentary, but coupled with a foreboding, existentialist narrator, the fictitious entomologist Dr. Hellstrom and an ominous and unnerving soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin. The cinematography is outstanding, which is presumably the reason that it was considered a documentary at all in the 1972 Oscars. It is also what helped a generation of young filmgoers take the over the top Dr. Hellstrom at face value. In the 70s, this film actually disturbed people, convincing them that humanity was on the brink of disaster and that insects were truly taking over. The interesting thing about this is that the insects are merely continuing what they’ve always done, for 300-400 million years. Couching all of this in faux eminent disaster talk doesn’t change a thing. Of course, not all of the footage in this film is nature-show material. This was the psychedelic era after all. In a favorite sequence, rapid-fire edits of the menacing eyespots on moth wings blend into the menacing blips from a huge mainframe computer in an attempt to show both the similarity and the intensity of the war between insects and humans.

Altogether, The Hellstrom Chronicle is an interesting entry into the Guide, as a period piece, as fantastic macro-cinematography, for its weirdness and yes, for its unintended hilarity. I can’t say that I truly think that the marriage of documentary and sci-fi really worked in this one, but I can’t say that it didn’t work well enough. Unfortunately, this is as of yet entirely unavailable in any legitimate form such as DVD. Still, it’s worth asking your internet savvy pal to dig up and burn for you (Thanks, Joel!).

Nit-picking Science: Astoundingly, the science in The Hellstrom Chronicle is, as far as I can tell, very sound. It is the context that these real-life oddities of nature are put in that makes this film less of a documentary than sci-fi. Through this trickery, The Hellstrom Chronicles lured a number of adventurous but unaware filmgoers into theatres to see a trippy, eco-horror flick, and instead handed them a fair amount of bug knowledge (and wonder) along with nightmare-inducing imagery and a false sense of dread. Yipee!

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