Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Random Movie Report #68: Phase IV

Phase IV DVD Amazon Link
It’s weird how movies connect. PHASE IV, the only feature film directed by editor, title artist, and general cool guy Saul Bass, is like a keystone that, when you see it, locks several other movies together. Made in 1974, it connects past and future. Like all nature’s revenge films, it owes a bit to THE BIRDS. Parts of it also seem to derive from Robert Wise’s sci-fi thriller THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (based on a book by Michael Crichton, who would also direct WESTWORLD, which was sequelized as FUTUREWORLD, which was co-written by Mayo Simon, this film’s screenwriter.) Despite not being a terribly prominent or popular film, it seems to have been a noticeable influence on two other killer-arthropod ventures, BUG and KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, both reviewed here. Which, in turn- this gets complicated, and for reasons I will never, ever understand myself, I produced the following:

The desperate scrawlings of a madman
For those who’ve never used Inspiration- it may not be a good idea to start, especially if you have Asperger’s.

All that aside, PHASE IV is a pretty provocative film in its own right. Saul Bass brings a measured and largely unsensational tone to what could be pure camp in the wrong hands; instead it’s a fascinating exploration of contact and conflict between two species. Definitely the most intellectual film of the “animals start killing people” bunch, PHASE IV suffers from a certain obtuseness at times, but there’s some remarkable beauty on display as well. Sort of the genre’s 2001. And yes, I’m aware I did not put that on the chart.

After a vaguely described solar event (a lunar eclipse, I think, though those are pretty common), Earth’s ants start behaving differently. Different colonies and species no longer war with each other, and common predators start disappearing. So far the event seems to be localized in a small US desert area, and scientist Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), concerned about the population explosion of the insects, sets up an experiment/assault base in the problem area, bringing along mathematical analyst James R. Lesko (Michael Murphy.) They find the ants have been eating away at the crops of a nearby farm in a downright UFO-esque pattern, and soon they graduate to attacks on the farmhouse and the truck that the lab uses as an outside generator. The farm owner, his wife, and a field hand are killed due to inadvertent pesticide exposure as Dr. Hubbs begins his war on the insects, but a young, shy, standoffish girl named Kendra (Lynne Frederick) survives and is taken into the base, having nowhere else to go.

The ants evolve quickly to tolerate Hubbs’ multihued pesticides, and begin laying siege to the fort, building large structures that reflect sunlight onto the metallic dome and raise the temperature. Hubbs, suffering an insect bite, starts to go a little mad, while Lesko works on a way of communicating with the insects. Needless to say, it soon becomes a question of who is experimenting on whom.

Throughout this, we see the ants in remarkable detail thanks to some amazing miniature photography by Ken Middleham; real ants seem to have been used almost entirely throughout, with some stop-motion and time-lapse sequences. Like KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, it’s clear that a number of arthropods gave their lives on camera, and there’s no notice that anyone monitored the animal action. (I wonder if it was the glut of killer-animal movies that made animal welfare groups start agitating that this stuff be regulated. I’ve not seen a single such notice in a 70s film.) It’s a genuine wonder how some shots were managed, and the scenes help both to establish the ants in a role beyond the movie monster and to lend the film a strange, cosmic vibe.

The human interaction is less meaty than it should be, though all three principals do a solid job. Reportedly, Saul Bass was not happy with how the studio treated the film, and the cut on DVD has at least 9 minutes missing. Some plot points aren’t entirely clear, but the general action is simple and direct enough that this isn’t a problem. This is very much a plot driven picture, but the plot is fascinating, and Bass’s visuals have an elegant simplicity that adds to the sense of unearthliness and unease.

This is a movie I’d heard about and read about for years, and to finally get around to seeing something like this is a unique experience. It’s more fascinating than frightening, even approaching a sense of wonder in a perverse way. A delicate and strange picture, which in its obscurity somehow ties a corner of the cinematic world together. Go figure.

Written by Mayo Simon
Directed by Saul Bass

Grade: B+

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