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'Locusts': CBS Puts Viewers in Swarms' Way

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page C01

"Locusts" is this month's winner of the "T.G.T.B.K." award. That's "They've Got to Be Kidding," a little something special for films that are a little something special themselves -- but only in their alternately grin-and-groan ridiculousness.

As may be deduced from the title, subtle contrivance though it is, "Locusts" depicts a modern-day bug plague visited upon the United States, a nation already weary from the long-running nightmare of Brad and Jen. Oh, will the madness never end?

As a research scientist, John Heard is the man who unleashes the superbug, but the real plague is the movie itself. (Cbs)

As with another CBS Sunday night movie, the unexpected "Spring Break Shark Attack," which aired in March, "Locusts" tries to whip up a wee bit o' fun in the style of atomic-mutation monster movies of the 1950s, seasoned with a smattering of fashionable ecological alarmism.

Sharks have sex appeal, however, while grasshoppers are just rude. And disgusting. "Locusts," at 9 tomorrow night on Channel 9, comes off less as winking romp than as heavy-handed hooey. Its confused script, sluggish direction and a parade of bad acting don't help.

The producers may be trying to cash in on the new trend toward apocalyptic chic, as NBC is doing with its repugnant "Revelations" series. Perhaps we are doomed to suffer not the classic biblical plagues themselves (though that can hardly be ruled out) but instead are to be afflicted with movies exploiting them for cheap thrills.

You can get a lot worse nightmares from too much Ben & Jerry's than "Locusts" is likely to provoke.

We're not dealing with giant locusts here, as poor Peter Graves did in 1957's "Beginning of the End." But then the mere word "locust" summons images of nature gone nastily nuts, though as always it's human beings messing around with nature who are actually to blame. John Heard, alarmingly fat, fills this bill, and then some, as a research scientist who for some obscure reason decides to try breeding a superbug in his laboratory.

These are the creatures that eventually infiltrate the bug population and wreak dark clouds of havoc on America's crops. That means CBS has a definite lock on the crop demographic for a couple of hours tomorrow night.

The movie, directed by David Jackson and written by Doug Prochilo, is never very clear on the precise nature of the threat to folks like us. It's suggested that the locusts are so voracious they'll eat people who come between them and their dinner, or at least bite people's faces, but perverse as these hybrids are, when they kill it's for food and not just to be mean.

At one point a topical note is sounded when the scientists consider using nerve gas to kill the bugs -- the very same nerve gas, they point out, that Saddam Hussein once used to kill Kurds. When it's calculated that this will result in 10 percent of the human population dying along with the locusts, someone suggests that maybe, just perhaps, there might be a better plan.

Leading the war against the locusts and turning in an erratic mess of a performance is Lucy Lawless ("Xena: Warrior Princess") as Dr. Maddy Rierdon, a USDA insect expert who is among the first to notice something amiss. It's just not right, she deduces, that wheat fields are vanishing faster than the carrot patches near Bugs Bunny's house. But Maddy is distracted by tiffs with oafish boyfriend Dan, played poutingly by Dylan Neal.

Mike Farrell, bless his "old pro" persona, briefly portrays Maddy's daddy, a farmer so inept that he can barely face the challenge of rounding up two small cows. We can, though, see a definite look of terror in Farrell's eyes, and it's saying, "Get me out of this movie!"

Writer Prochilo's dialogue includes several dreary genre inevitabilities: "Put the chopper down now!," "We can't just sit here and do nothing!," "I'll take full responsibility" and "Electricity!? Are you out of your mind?!" When Maddy goes batty and starts attacking a helicopter with a monkey wrench, the imposing Gregalan Williams as a U.S. Army general brings a hearty credibility to "She's insane!"

The film isn't only a fight between humanity and bugs but also a brawl among bureaucrats. "The FDA and the EPA would never go for it," Lawless says of one proposed remedy, "and neither would the USDA." All right -- but how about the CIA, the FBI and the USPS?

We can't judge the special effects since they were unfinished in the version that CBS submitted to critics. Based on its other production values, it's hard to imagine "Locusts" providing any serious competition to such immortal movie locust plagues as those in "Brigham Young" (1940) and, of course, "The Good Earth" (1937).

TV critics, who often get incomplete films to review, had to settle for printed red captions indicating where the attacks would later be inserted: "Locusts Swarming," "Locusts Twitching" and "Locusts Get Bored and Go Away."

All right, I confess: I made the last one up. It's a better description of what viewers might do than of locust high jinks anyway.

Locusts (two hours) airs tomorrow night at 9 on CBS.

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