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Phase IV

Phase IV
1974 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 84 min. / Street Date July 3, 2008 / (Best Buy Exclusive, for now)
Starring Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick, Alan Gifford
Cinematography Dick Bush
Insect sequences Ken Middleham
Art Direction John Barry
Film Editor Willy Kemplen
Original Music Brian Gascoigne
Written by Mayo Simon
Produced by Paul B. Radin
Directed by Saul Bass

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Phase IV is a post- 2001 serious Sci-Fi film with an ecological message, an cramped storytelling style and some knockout visuals. Sort of a cerebral remake of Them! with ants that are smart instead of big, the film works up its fair share of tension before resolving in a welter of murky mysticism ... not the annoying pretentious mysticism, but the far-out deep-think variety. Mankind has gotta make way for the next species to inherit the planet, dude.

Acclaimed graphic artist Saul Bass is famous for his creative title sequences, most notably for Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. He takes an unusual approach to this ecological Sci-Fi picture. Bass's optical effects have dated somewhat but the many insect microphotography sequences (by specialist Ken Middleham) have yet to be bettered.


A celestial incident bathes the Earth in energy waves of an undisclosed nature. The incident passes harmlessly until scientist Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) investigates odd happenings in Arizona: ants are changing their basic social natures, ceasing to fight among themselves and banding together to wipe out their natural predators. Hubbs sets up a research lab in a sealed-off dome, and invites cryptographer and communications specialist James Lesko (Michael Murphy) to join him. Hordes of ants have already driven some farmers off the land, and the experiment is barely underway before the lab is under siege. Survivor Kendra Eldrige (Lynne Frederick) arrives; Hubbs doesn't report her or the killings because he doesn't want the experiment shut down. The super-intelligent ants attack the dome by building dirt-obelisks with reflective surfaces, to focus sunlight. They then infiltrate the lab to knock out the humans' air conditioner. Hubbs wants to keep fighting but Lesko has a longer view ... the ants will eventually prevail, and mankind's only chance is to communicate with them.

No filmmaker has been able to repeat Stanley Kubrick's melding of Science Fiction and experimental cinema but 2001 did spawn a number of films with ambitious themes. Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running had good intentions, good visuals and a rather draggy storyline, and George Roy Hill played some good tricks making Billy Pilgrim get unstuck in time in the Kurt Vonnegut adaptation Slaughterhouse-5. Movies with ecological themes tended toward sticky sentiment (Silent Running), paranoid conspiracies (Rage) or duck-amuck exploitation (No Blade of Grass).

Phase IV avoids all of those pitfalls. It begins with a pair of scientists fighting a familiar threat and then goes in a very interesting direction. The drama is a bit constipated, with Nigel Davenport behaving a bit like Quint in the next year's Jaws and then going berserk when he realizes he's no match for the ant horde. Cool customer Michael Murphy trades discoveries with Davenport, but wisely puts his energy into communication.

The ant colonies have developed a mass intelligence, and become a vast communal creature. Individual insects are like cells of this body, reasons Davenport: they're expendable suicide fighters. When Davenport wipes out hundreds of thousands of attacking ants with a yellow foam, we see a series of ants dragging a piece of the foam back to their queen, each dying in turn from the poison. The queen processes the yellow goop and immediately adapts by pumping out yellow, poison resistant ant larvae. The next generation will be that much closer to victory.

Phase IV revisits the concept of a communal multi-organism creature, as proposed in Nigel Kneale's Quatermass 2. When Murphy breaks down the ants' mechanical language, the film also harmonizes somewhat with Close Encounters. The key to everything is communication, as the ant intelligence seems to be truly curious about humans.

Security comes first, though, and most of Phase IV is a curious battle between the isolated lab dome and the ant onslaught. The ants surround the dome with towers topped with heat-reflectors -- like the Markalites ray cannons that lay siege to the Mysterians' battle dome in Chikyu Boeigun, but on a much smaller scale. Saboteur ants sneak in to gnaw away at crucial lab wiring -- the communal ant mind has analyzed the dome's defenses.

Phase IV has some very good visuals and many truly amazing ones. Saul Bass's main talent, even in his famous title sequences, is visual communication, and his optical tricks conjure up weird space phenomena, strange silhouetted shapes on the horizon, and a few impressive (if dated) surreal images. Some of these are on the grainy side. The real wonder of the film are Ken Middleham's incredibly good micro-cinematographic views of the ants and other insects going about their business. The film could easily use a number of generic "bugs milling about" shots, but these are planned, choreographed and executed for maximum graphic appeal.

Focus is good and the bug action is fascinating - many shots are even over-cranked in beautiful slow motion. We see ants arranging the bodies of their dead in long funeral rows, a chilling vision. What looks like a multi-phyla, multi-tribe meeting shows a number of incredibly enlarged ant, each with a distinctive badge on its forehead. The little emblems can't be bigger than pinheads -- how'd they do that? The proof that Phase IV is working is that we follow their strategies without one word of explanatory voiceover. We understand what they're doing.

Ken Middleham's claim to fame just prior to Phase IV was The Hellstrom Chronicle, a rather hysterical apocalyptic 'documentary'. He dazzled viewers with his fantastic microphotography; it was probably to convince the studio that an exciting thriller could be made from the idea of insects taking over the earth.

The drama isn't quite as deft, as the characters are left rather undefined. Davenport becomes somewhat irrational after an ant bite swells his hand to twice its size (good makeup, and reminiscent of The Quatermass Xperiment). Lynne Frederick, Davenport's co-star from No Blade of Grass is around to keep things from getting too monotonous, but ultimately she becomes irrelevant, unless she and Murphy are meant to be a sort of Adam and Eve ambassador-to-the-ants duo. The mostly British crew made the low budget movie at Pinewood, with what might be South Africa standing in for Arizona. All in all, an impressive and offbeat little movie.

The ending incorporates visuals that remind us of the later Altered States, and Bass can't resist restaging Luis Buñuel's ants-crawling-out-of-a-hole-in-a-man's-hand gag. We're told that one cut of the film had a longer, even more "ethereal cereal" ending, and if anyone who knows about it wants to report in, Savant and his rabid readers would be much obliged.  1

Legend's DVD of Paramount's Phase IV is a good transfer of basically good elements. The film looks a little grainy at times, with reasonably good color. The bits of dirt on view might be from Saul Bass' original optical work, and not the fault of the transfer. No trailer or commentary is provided, darn it.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Phase IV rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 3, 2008


1. From correspondent Edward Sullivan, who knows his Sci-Fi Film resources, 7.04.08:

I believe there was a reference to several minutes cut from the Phase IV ending in Future Tense: The cinema of science fiction by John Brosnan, which I have buried somewhere ...

More recently, the crazy raspberry ant problem in Texas is reminding some of Phase IV - the ants apparently attack electrical wiring. Ed Sullivan.

Nice shootin', Ed. I had that book buried in my stack as well, and here's the John Brosnan quote, from page 228:

"Bass originally filmed a spectacular, surreal montage lasting four minutes, showing what life would be like on the 'new' Earth, but this was cut by the distributor."

Gee, there's nothing like being yanked off the stage just as you're going into your finale. Maybe this concluding montage will turn up in an Argentinian museum, like the complete Metropolis. -- Glenn E.

2.From longtime correspondent Bruce Holecheck, 7.5.08:

The trailer to Phase IV can be found on Synapse Films' 42nd Street Forever Volume 3: Exploitation Explosion and it does indeed contain some snippets of the more tripped-out climax that unfortunately didn't make it into the release version. Additional glimpses include a man and a woman merging into one new, faceless being, and some additional psychedelic photography and effects. -- Bruce Holecheck

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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