Watching The Hellstrom Chronicle upon its fortieth anniversary reissue (in a beautiful, immaculate, eye-candy print — but with no extra features) propels me back instantaneously to my teenaged years when I saw this unique hybrid documentary for the first and only time. Selected images from the film and its overall tone have remained seared upon my cortex for the intervening forty years, compounded by the contemporaneous reading of the book by Frank Herbert which the film inspired, Hellstrom’s Hive. (More on this prose artifact in a few moments.) The roiling psychic miasma of fear and awe, esthetic delight and Lovecraftian horror swept over me again — dissipated somewhat, it is true, by my advanced wisdom and the world’s eventful history since then. But the film remains a landmark worthy of its Academy Award for Best Documentary and stands as a forerunner of much documentary and quasi-documentary work since.
The conceit behind the project was to assemble unprecedentedly gorgeous microphotography of insects — shots of uncanny three-dimensional detail and jaw-dropping colorful intensity, which would make the typical Disney or Wild Kingdom offering look like the work of an amateur with a Super 8 camera — and layer atop them a narrative about the superiority of insect over man and the coming doom of our species. Scripter Seltzer, with vetting from scientists for the sake of accuracy, provided the apocalyptic, melodramatic text (insect shapes, for instance, “arise out of the imagination of the insane”), convincingly delivered as a lecture by fictional scientist Nils Hellstrom (played by Lawrence Pressman). The resulting mashup was eminently believable, presaging everything from The Blair Witch Project to Life After Man.
The movie’s endtimes tone perfectly fit the zeitgeist, as the utopian hippie dream seemed set to expire amidst war, eco-collapse, political malfeasance, and scientific hubris. It was an era much like our current period, when everything seemed dangerously unstable after a period of high hopes. And of course, that’s precisely when Nature — “Nature is indifferent to utopias,” Nils Hellstrom announces — rears her insectoid head. Perhaps this film will resonate deeply once again.
Pressman — at age 32, his authority-conferring grey sideburns had to be a dye job, laughable in retrospect — did a laudable job of portraying the sincere yet alarmist Hellstrom, who, you half suspected, was rooting for the bugs all along. Lalo Schiffrin’s score was all over the map, from Baroque harpsichord to mock-Stravinsky to Space Age Bachelor Pad synthesizers — yet somehow coherent, and it did the trick. The stunning shots of the insects were edited brilliantly, into mini-narratives such as a war between ants and termites, or the quest of honeybees for a new queen. Trippy visuals akin to the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey were provided, in montages of butterfly wings, for example. And with incredible foresight, Seltzer latched on to the now-accepted notion of computational processes embedded in nature, referring to termites as bits and bytes in a living computer.
The filmmakers were blatantly unapologetic about choosing emotional and esthetic punch over dry classroom presentation. The majority of the insects depicted are never even identified, scientifically or otherwise. Sound effects are added: the crashing of waterdrops upon a bug’s head, the chomping of bug mandibles. I suspect certain incidents, such as the toppling of a termite mound wall, were staged, the ultimate taboo for a “respectable” show such as Nature. But the result is a deeper intimacy with the insect kingdom than from any dozen textbooks.
Prior to the film’s release, its makers sought out Frank Herbert, famed writer of Dune, to provide a novel inspired by the film. Oddly enough, he had one underway, Project 40, that could be retrofitted. But negotiations dragged, and the book did not appear till a year or so later, after a mad sprint to add 85,000 words. But Hellstrom’s Hive was, in its way, even creepier than the movie. Depicting a utopian scheme to engineer a human colony along insect lines, the book conjured up Huxleyian nightmares of our species remade, evoking some kind of insectoid North Korea, combined with bio-horror tropes.
We now know, thanks to the work of such authorities as E. O. Wilson, that the biomass of insects exceeds that of all humans: a humbling fact not mentioned in The Hellstrom Chronicle, but one which the film implicitly conveys during its every lush, thrilling, despair-inducing minute.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.