Neil Gaiman always seems to be involved in projects that are both weird and wonderful. Creepy and enigmatic. And this time, a bit kinky it would seem. Let’s not be coy. This film is about spider sex.
Sixteen Legs is a series of inter-linked projects by Neil Gaiman and the Bookend Trust focusing on antipodean cave ecosystems, as well as spiders. So there’s a lot more to the film than just arachnids. It would seem absurd to devote twenty-three years of scientific research for this documentary film to the copulation habits between Tasmanian cave spiders, otherwise called Hickmania.
The film was engaging and informative, and better yet, was introduced by Neil Gaiman in the flesh. It wasn’t just some monotone voice-over narrative of spiders found in caves; it was varied. You had the celebrity likes of Stephen Fry and Mark Gatiss expressing very neutral and tactful opinions on spiders, and then a montage of people interviewed on city streets excitingly describing their most preferred method of killing one. The scientists were also excited, but more about the prospect of the Hickmania species living up to several decades and having nerve endings in their sexual organs.
In other parts, Sixteen Legs was surprisingly funny. You get an average Aussie Joe explaining how female spiders camouflage their egg sacs from predators by covering it with dirt and rock—and unexpectedly, with the body parts of the unfortunate male spiders they killed after mating. The guy adds in: ‘At least when the kids come out, they get to see a bit of dad.’ Well-placed humour wasn’t something I was expecting in this film, but it broke up the information flow very nicely and gave the audience time to digest some of the more important, intricate details.
When we finally got to the spider sex bit, it went for a tad longer than it should. And I wasn’t quite sure with what I was seeing. It was mostly a tangle of long thin legs, and the male spider using one of those legs to tap away at the female’s backside. It was clearly a special moment for the filmmakers as they dramatized the scene by adding grand, sweeping music—but it wasn’t working for me. After the five-minute mark in all you see is a male Hickmania trying to fit his pouch of sperm in the female, tap tap tapping away, it gets awkward. Next scene please.
Then there was Neil Gaiman. If there was a magical and strange aspect of this film, it’d be his. His parts were nestled in the pauses of the film, interwoven with some cool animation and an ethereal musical backdrop. Between his poetic intones of ‘I am lost’ and ‘I can only follow her call’, we figure out that Gaiman metaphorically plays a male Hickmania who is drawn to the lair of a potential female companion. Unintentionally, there was another slice of comedy found in the film. For in the next shot, we see Gaiman blindly trying to escape from a murderous female arachnid after his endeavours to ‘woo’ her go wrong. It was a nice touch to the movie and gave an added dimension of getting into the headspace of a male Hickmania.
The only truly negative thing I’ll like to point out was that the documentary dragged on for quite a bit, and seemed a bit repetitive at times. And honestly, the spider sex didn’t have to go on for that long. Other than that, it was enlightening, fun and the cinematography was spectacular: from the densely green forests of Tasmania, to the starry cave ceilings that were actually home to glow-worms, and to the close-up takes of the Hickmania spiders that took on a reddish luminescent look in the darkness of the cave. That said, Sixteen Legs made me think twice about killing my next spider on sight.