At first blush, The Hellstrom Chronicle seems to be a simple documentary about insects. The cinematography, while striking, even occasionally beautiful, nonetheless verges on the banal after nearly 50 years of countless nature films on similar subjects. What makes Chronicle unique is that it is a documentary with a tendentious thesis: mankind is doomed to a final struggle with insects which we are bound to lose.
This provocative message is delivered by “Dr. Hellstrom” (Lawrence Pressman) who claims to have made a life’s study of insects. Hellstrom walks through and connects the footage, speaking calmly about insects’ advantages. He also stresses that our intelligence and sense of consciousness actually doom us because they produce an awareness of mortality. For Hellstrom, the purpose of life is life itself, and the insect’s relentless, unconscious pursuit of survival and reproduction trumps our ability to imagine alternatives.
Hellstrom presents his gloomy message with the quiet assurance of a David Attenborough, describing the most vividly pulsating material with wry irony and understatement. What makes Chronicle aesthetically interesting is not his unnerving detachment, however, or the often gruesome spectacle so much as the paradox to result from a character delivering a doomsday opinion supported by “objective” nature footage. An Attenborough merely describes; Hellstrom argues.
The final credits reveal that Hellstrom is in fact a fictional creation, but they also assert that the scientific information is accurate. This is the cinematic equivalent of an Escher-like statement that “I am lying,” opening an abyss of reflexive, self-contradictory doubt. We trust a documentary to be truthful. If we extend that trust to accept that Hellstrom is fictional, that means the filmmakers have been lying throughout. So why should we accept anything they say as truthful—including that they are lying?
Fudging casts further doubt on their reliability. For example, the central thesis that “Man” is in conflict with “insects” as a species founders on the fact that “insects” are not a species, they are a collection of them. That the more accurate term “arthropod” is not used may be irrelevant to the horror, but the error raises questions about how responsibly the filmmakers are using scientific information. Admittedly a war with “arthropods” sounds considerably less alarming but heightening audience fear by using the more familiar term is a matter of drama, not science.
Much of the spectacle is undeniably engrossing. The metamorphosis from defenseless caterpillar, dangling precariously from a branch to translucent, nearly lapidary chrysalis, to lighter-than-air butterfly is both suspenseful and entrancing. Shots of carnivorous plants like the Venus Flytrap gorging on bees and flies are enough to make us side with the bugs, although they are also a little off-topic. In fact, it may be that “Hellstrom” was invented as a conceit to hold together footage that could not stand on its own. The efficacy-questioning issues to result from combining fact and fiction are probably more accidental than deliberate but by creating uncertainty, they help produce hope.