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'Alien Arthropods!' invade 19th annual Insect Fear Film Festival on Feb. 9

Jim Barlow, Life Sciences editor
(217) 333-5802;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Millions of alien invaders live in the United States, and a select bunch of them cause an estimated $20 billion in damage each year. These are not repulsive life-threatening beings from Mars and beyond; rather they are insects and other arthropods, some barely distinguished from homegrown varieties. Some of these aliens will star in this year’s Insect Fear Film Festival on Feb. 9.

Organizers of the 19th annual event at the University of Illinois will strive to show how insects are portrayed on film – almost always incorrectly and ineptly – and shed light on their true nature. This year’s "Alien Arthropods!" theme will include three feature-length films and numerous shorter ones.

"Our shores have been invaded pretty much without interruption since the first European vessels docked in American waters," says festival creator May Berenbaum, the head of the UI entomology department. "The reality of biological aliens – nonindigenous or non-native species that have invaded the U.S. – couldn't be more different from the stories told in movies."

On film, alien insects are invariably intensely aggressive, larger-than-life biological freaks. The films play upon the public's fear of and misconceptions about bugs, Berenbaum says, and that opens the door for educational outreach – all in fun, of course.

This year's film lineup will begin with selected family-friendly short films (cartoons and live-action shorts) about arthropods, including episodes of "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," featuring Zorak, a giant alien mantis. The night’s main features will be preceded by the hourlong "Outer Limits" episode "The Zanti Misfits." In it, criminals (oversized ants) from the planet Zanti are exiled to Earth, where they turn violent in retaliation of their fate. See a young Bruce Dern as a runaway felon.

The three feature-length films:

orange dot "Quatermass and the Pit" (1968), aka "Five Million Miles to Earth," starring Andrew Keir as Bernard Quatermass, who is brought into a London subway tunnel after archaeologists uncover a 5-million-year-old spaceship containing insect-like creatures that may actually still be alive. The military is led by Col. Breen (Julian Glover, who later would have starring roles in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back") in this 97-minute film.

orange dot "Starship Troopers" (1997), a futuristic film, based on science fiction great Robert Heinlein’s book by the same title, of a militaristic Earth (rated R for its violence, language and nudity). A military expedition goes to a far-away planet to destroy insect-like aliens bent on taking over Earth. The heavily armored creatures pose extreme danger to a team that includes Neil Patrick Harris (better known as television’s "Doogie Howser"). While not critically acclaimed (as few films in this festival ever are), the film has a cult following.

orange dot "Spiders" (2000), directed by Gary Jones (director of a previous festival favorite, "Mosquitoes"). A cub newspaper reporter, Marcie (Lana Parilla), follows a lead to a deserted air base, where, coincidentally, a space shuttle crashed. The shuttle had been the scene of an experiment involving the DNA of a poisonous spider. After crashing, an alien spider emerges from one of the astronaut's bodies. Marcie teams with a federal agent (Josh Green) in the hunt for a massively growing spider that is replicating rapidly.

The films all pit humankind against arthropods, which, in real life, inhabit the planet by the millions as its most successful animals. These segmented creatures with hardened exoskeletons range in size from microscopic insects to much larger creatures such as king crabs. The vast majority live out their lives without bothering humans, but, Berenbaum said, when they stray beyond their normal habitats (often because of human interference), even insects that are innocuous in their homelands can become a clear and present danger to our way of life.

"Alien species cause economic damage all out of proportion to their size; they can damage crops and livestock and, as vectors of human diseases, even cause loss of life," she said. "Economically important nonindigenous insect pests, the real aliens, have caused incredible amounts of damage in the 20th century."

Of the 90,000 species of insects and other arthropods in the United States, she notes, more than 2,000 are not native to this country. "The question logically arises as to where they came from," she said. "The U.S. insect fauna is a veritable United Nations of species." In the films shown during this year’s festival, the species come from outside the United States – far outside.

Attendees of the festival may wish to arrive early this year. From 1 to 6 p.m., the Illinois Natural History Survey will host its annual Insect Expo 2002. In conjunction with the film festival, the theme will be "Alien Species." The family-friendly event will feature interactive activities, displays, an arthropod zoo and an arthropod art contest. Insect Expo will be held in the auditorium and lobby of the Foreign Languages Building, 707 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana.

The Insect Fear Film Festival is held nearby in the Foellinger Auditorium, 709 S. Mathews Ave. (south end of the Quad). Doors open at 6 p.m. for demonstrations and exhibits, many of them run by members of the sponsoring Graduate Student Association of the entomology department. Festival T-shirts, a popular souvenir of each year’s event, also will be available. The program begins at 7 p.m. Admission is free.