Saturday 7 April 2012

Phase IV

Ants Elope

Phase IV USA 1974
Directed by Saul Bass
Legend Films Region 1

Phase IV is a science fiction film made in what was possibly the last great decade of “science fiction films being genuinely interesting”... as opposed to the “easier to get financed” and more interchangeable sci-fi movies generally being made these days.

So, for starters... there’s that!

Secondly, it’s the only film made by my absolute graphic design hero Saul Bass. Probably more well known to the majority of my readers here by his work designing title sequences (Psycho, North By Northwest, Casino, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World etc), movie posters (The Man With The Golden Arm, Advise and Consent, Vertogo etc) and even directing and designing certain sequences in movies (the shower scene from Psycho, the race montages from Grand Prix)... Saul Bass was also the man who gave us such modern (50s, 60s, 70s & 80s) updates and original logos as the Bell Telephone symbol, the Warner Brothers symbol (that famous version which is a cunning distillation of three strokes within a rounded losenge shape), Quaker... the list goes on and on and on.

And he’s my design hero... I’ll say it again.

He’s no longer with us, of course... but I saw him in the flesh once in the late 80s (or was it early 90s) talking for hours on end at an Icograda Show for designers (I got a free ticket for being a good design student) one year where he screened some of his short films and title sequences (Walk On The Wild Side, Vertigo, The Man With The Golden Arm) and told some amazing anecdotes about them. He was a funny guy and also... a truly great designer.

And Phase IV is the only full length, commercially released feature film he ever got around to directing himself.

And it’s amazing.

Deserves to be a heck of a lot better known than it is though.

Starring a cast of, I think, 6 human characters... three of whom are dead before not much of the film has progressed... the film follows the exploits of two scientists (Michael Murphy and Nigel Davenport) and a stray girl they end up with (played by Lynne Frederick, I won’t tell you how they end up with her) as they study a colony of ants in the desert.

Now normally when you hear the words “science-fiction” and “ants” combined in a sentence, your mind immediately leaps to classic B-movies like the amazing THEM! and instantly makes a leap and assumes that any ants in these kinds of films must be some kind of giant-sized, mutated ants. Well... that’s not the case here. We’re just talking about a colony, or actually a super colony comprising various different interactive species of ants (something which just doesn’t happen, apparently) and, though they are teeny, tiny small ants, just like they would be in real life, I can tell you right now that these ants are downright sinister in their intent... if not flat out terrifying in some scenes.

The film starts out with Michael Murphy narrating to the viewer, telling us about an unspecificed incident in space... by the end of the film, just the continued existence of that voice over narrative will have much deeper and, possibly, chilling implications for the future of mankind. But I’m getting ahead of myself again...

Anyway, while the world is watching space, a few people have begun to notice what the ants have started doing in the desert... which is interacting with other colonies and building a quite large and incomprehensible cluster of geometric structures which, while not actually looking like them, have all the sinister presence of the statues on Easter Island (my comparison, not those of the characters in the film). Also, they’ve been forming perfect and very large geometric shapes in fields of corn (or some such thing) such as squares within circles... I’m not sure whether this movie pre-dates crop circles and other dubious phenomena, but if it does, this is some prophetic movie making.

The scientists go to study the ants and when they can’t get much interest out of the ants, they blow up all the ant-built structures to provoke a reaction. It certainly gets the ants’ attention and soon Michael Murphy’s character is discovering patterns and codes within their sounds and, well, pretty much picking up on bits of ant-speak and having a conversation, of sorts, with them. Unfortunately for the scientists, they really know how to attract attention because it’s not long before these clever and organised ants have the scientists trapped within the large structure they’ve built to study the ants from. Pretty soon the one question any audience who sees this is gonna ask is... are the scientists studying the ants? Or are the ants studying the scientists.

I really don’t want to give away too much about this gentle but, slowly and surely, worrying study in paranoia and menace but I will say that it’s a pretty amazing movie and it fits in well with the kinds of interesting science-fiction films being made in the sixties and seventies which were willing to let you pause and think about what’s going on in them and then come back with a very strong ending. This film isn’t as well known as the movies I feel it stands head and shoulders with (and it certainly can’t stand with them budget wise) like The Omega Man, The Forbin Project, Demon Seed, Soylent Green, Planet Of The Apes or The Ultimate Warrior... but it certainly deserves to be.

Phase IV is well shot, well acted and without a constant babble of relentless dialogue. Some sections play out in total silence, when they’re not backdropped by an interesting experimental score reminiscent of the kind of scoring you’d get in stuff like The Andromeda Strain... eg. electronic, sometimes dissonant, very haunting tonal moods. There’s also an amazing sequence wherein, in deference to the director's training and experience in the world of graphic design I’m guessing, Nigel Davenport’s character uses colour to temporarily stop the ants from continuing with their attack... great stuff!

Not to mention a far more grotesque homage to the “ants from the hand” sequence of Dali and Bunuel’s surrealist classic Un Chien Andaleu.

I don’t want to say a whole lot about this movie because I think you really need to seek out and discover this almost lost classic for yourself, but I will say that there’s an almost sublime sense of mounting dread as the movie progresses and the final few minutes are a bit of a conceptual leap and a promise of things to come... once the credits have finished rolling and you’re back out in the real world. If you love 60s/70s sci-fi movies then Phase IV is absolutely up your street... if you can get an opportunity to watch this movie then you should take a look. An unsung classic!

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