Thursday, January 01, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Phase IV (1974)

"The name of the game today is king of the hill..."

-Computer scientist James Lesko (Michael Murphy) contemplates war with the "goddamned" ants in Phase IV (1974).


Saul Bass (1920 - 1996) was one of the cinema's greatest graphic designers, a revered film artist who contributed the memorable title sequences of such films as The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), North by Northwest (1959), Spartacus (1960), Psycho (1960), Good Fellas and others.

Bass also storyboarded for Hitchcock the famous shower scene with Janet Leigh in the aforementioned Psycho. Bass's only contribution as a director, however, is the little-seen (but highly entrancing...) science-fiction horror film of the early disco decade, Phase IV (1974).

Phase IV follows a strange phenomenon in outer space, one that changes variables in "magnetic fields." The mystics on Earth predict earthquakes; others predict "the end of life as we know it." But when the cosmic effect reaches our planet, the change it causes goes unnoticed, at least for a time. Because it effects only the smallest of us...the ants.

Specifically, ordinary ants of different species soon begin communicating with one another, "making decisions," according to the on-going voice-over narration from Michael Murphy, who plays investigator James Lesko. In one isolated Arizona desert (no, not peaceful Verde Valley...), the ants begin to construct tall monoliths...a series of very advanced, human-proportioned towers. The ants have also mysteriously begun to attack livestock: burrowing inside animals and leaving a distinctive mark of three small circles. They've even begun crafting huge crop circles...perhaps paving the way for an alien invasion? Signalling the vanguard. Or is it something else?

An obsessed, egomaniacal scientist named Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and a computer scientist/linguist named Lesko (Murphy) take up residence in a small high-tech dome adjacent to the ant towers, in hopes of understanding what the ants are up to.

When the ants go stealthy; refusing to show their hand, Hubbs decides on a pre-emptive strike to draw them out. He launches grenades at the ant towers and brings them all down in a destructive flurry, reducing them to rubble. By moonlight that very night, the ants retaliate: first attacking a local farm, and then establishing a ring of reflective towers around Hubb's dome; towers that will burn the humans out (after first rendering their computers inoperable).

Meanwhile, a farmer's beautiful daughter, Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick) survives the ant strike on her family ranch and joins the scientists as they attempt to solve the riddle of these highly-advanced insects. Hubbs wants to launch a decapitation strike; to pinpoint the Queen Ant and kill her, thus nullifying the ant threat. "You must show them that man will not give in," he believes.

By contrast, Murphy (with the help of his computers) learns the ant language and starts to transmit geometric shapes and mathematical figures to them, hoping that there can be some "rational accommodation of interests; some agreement" between species.

All throughout the film -- as the ants grow more intelligent...and remain one step ahead of the perplexed human scientists -- titles appear on-screen indicating different "phases" of this odd and increasingly apocalyptic crisis. The final phase -- Phase IV --arrives with a new dawn, a new sunrise, as the ants use Kendra to draw out Lesko.

What occurs in the film's final sequence -- as Kendra and Lesko meet (and mate...) inside a sandy ant hill -- represents some weird sort of species apotheosis (for man and the ants...). This trippy climax renders Phase IV the 2001: A Space Odyssey of attacking-ant movies. It intimates that the ants -- experts in specialization and self-sacrifice -- have begun to teach humans the very same qualities. And that, with the ants help, humans are now evolving into...something.

The film's final line indicates a weird ambiguity. "We were being changed and made a part of their world," says Lesko. This description could easily portend a new beginning for humanity, one of true freedom and cooperation. Or it could represent slavery...under the domination of the ants (or aliens who have utilized the ants?).

Phase IV makes splendid and pervasive use of close-up natural photography of ants and other insects (conducted by Ken Middleham). There is no Hollywood fakery involved in these amazing, lengthy sequences: no models; no digital creations...just real ants going about their business with frightening dedication.

There's an almost awe-inspiring (and again, totally real...) sequence in which one ant attempts to carry back to the Queen a piece of the pesticide that has killed his brethren. Exposure to this pesticide chunk is fatal to the ant, but he marches along, as far as he can. When he expires, another soldier ant arrives and continues the journey. When that ant dies, another ant arrives and continues the journey. This goes on and on - uninterrupted by human interaction or comment - until the last ant gets the chunk of poison to the queen, and she very quickly is able to create an immunity to the weakened poison in future generations, as she lays eggs.

Another scene of incredible visuals involves the ants lining up their dead (after one of Hubbs' attacks). They lay the corpses out in rows, belly (or thorax...) up...and then stand at a form of attention; as if honoring their dead at a funeral.


Another of Phase IV's most tense and fascinating scenes involves a showdown (inside the coils of an air-conditioning unit...) between a predatory preying mantis and an industrious ant attempting sabotage.

It seems odd (to say the least), but Bass determinedly grants the ants (and their side) as much screen time as the human stars, and the effect is startling and .interesting. You start to wonder which species is altruistic and which is warlike; which species understands love and which species doesn't. Hubbs insists that the ants aren't individuals, but rather merely "individual cells." The ants do understand self-sacrifice -- to protect their queen -- because she is at the center of their lives. Yet Hubbs doesn't see that this urge to protect the queen is, in some form, an act of love. He can only see the ants as an enemy; as an inferior enemy, actually. In his smug blindness, he doesn't see how he is outmaneuvered.

By balancing the ant storyline against the human one, Bass crafts a strange but powerful sense of equivalence. Who are we -- in these circumstances anyway -- to judge ourselves superiors? Who are we to -- as Hubbs suggests -- to teach the ants "limits?" To "educate them?" Indeed, Hubbs is hardly praise-worthy or a paragon of virtue. He treats even his fellow man with cold stoicism. "People die sometimes," he says at one point, without any expression of true feeling. What makes him the better creature?

Phase IV
is an unsettling, spooky film. It's not just about a war between man and insect. Rather it depicts a war between the ideals of individuality and the community. Bass shows us the ant world on a scale we've never seen before, and even though these smart ants oppose us and our culture, you can't leave this film without some sense of admiration for them.

Hubbs would have done well to remember that old proverb: "Be thine enemy an ant, see in him an elephant."

2 comments:

  1. I have loved this movie since I saw it on TV as a kid in the 70's; great images and the sort of trippy vibe that post-Star Wars SF is sadly missing. Probably one of about five or six truly psychedelic SF films. You don't mention one of my favorite aspects of the movie, however... the ants wear make-up! Someone with very tiny fingers (one imagines) painted geometric symbols on the foreheads of those little buggers... freaky!

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  2. Hey John,
    Glad to see you reviewing this one! I saw it earlier this year, and it has quickly become a favorite. For years I avoided this in the video store due to the hokey cover art, but the film is beautifully shot as your review indicates. I can only assume the visual master Bass had nothing to do with the publicity campaign!

    Aside from being a bit of a technical marvel, the photography of the ants and other insects is pretty unsettling at times. I get the creeps just thinking about how they're shown taking out a spider at the beginning. It's amazing how Bass makes the footage work as drama - too bad he didn't do more work as a director.

    You know, it's a good thing not too many people know about this one when you think about it. In an age of remakes we'd probably get "Phase V" from Hollywood, with loads of delightful CGI : )

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