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Phase IV

Olive Films // PG // October 27, 2015
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 7, 2015 | E-mail the Author
Saul Bass' eye for design remains without equal. It's not possible to overstate the man's impact on cinema, from his iconic and wildly influential poster art to his many dazzling title sequences. Bass holds only one feature-length credit as a director, though, and Phase IV has at long last found its way to Blu-ray.

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With as revered as Bass was within the industry and with as many opportunities as he surely had, it may seem odd that his choice of film would be a science fiction tale about cosmically-irradiated, hyperintelligent ants scheming to overtake everything in their path. I can see the appeal, though. Intricate ant tunnels mirror Bass' attention to detail in his designs. The extensive macrophotography by Ken Middleham offers a visual perspective rarely glimpsed in cinema. These brilliant creatures communicate via geometry and mathematics, playing to Bass' mastery of clean lines and shapes. The realm of science fiction offers Bass the opportunity to indulge in designs too spectacular for any other genre. Cases in point:

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Phase IV is an unqualified success visually, reveling in bursts of psychedelia surely inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and offering audiences sights few other filmmakers could ever conceive of producing. Unfortunately, it's one of the most excruciatingly sluggish films I've ever had to endure. That's surprising given that its premise reads like something out of a '50s drive-in flick. A cosmic event leaves most of this planet's creatures untouched but has propelled colonies of ants in the American Southwest far forward in evolution. Working collectively under a hive mind, they eradicate all natural threats they would ordinarily face -- mantises, spiders, mice, and the like -- before turning their many eyes towards the humans that litter their landscape. Homes are leveled. Those who haven't already fled are hunted and killed. They so rapidly adapt to whatever threats they face that even the most toxic of insecticides holds no effect. The only hope of limiting the ants' reign is in two scientists that soon find themselves trapped in a hopelessly remote geodesic dome. James (Michael Murphy) hopes to further decipher the insects' "language" and perhaps soon communicate with them. Ernest (Nigel Davenport) has no interest in talking, be it to insects, the superiors he deliberately keeps in the dark, or the orphaned girl (Lynne Frederick) taking refuge in the base. To his mind, this is war -- a battle for the future of humanity -- and Ernest doesn't much care who fires the next shot. He'll put his entire group in the crosshairs just to ensure that there is another volley. At least his descent into insanity distracts him from the rapidly rising temperatures, as the ants systematically destroy their technology and devise a scheme to slowly roast the three of them inside the dome.

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Bass appears to have devoted himself so wholly to crafting Phase IV's visuals that nearly everything else falls by the wayside. James, Ernest, and Kendra are woefully uninvolving characters. For a premise that would seem to lend itself to so much many tense setpieces...there are really only a handful of note. The macrophotography of the ants is astonishing, and there are a number of immaculately staged sequences in which they perform: a brilliant battle as a mantis stalks an ant gnawing on a red wire, for instance, and a haunting scene with ants navigating neatly arranged rows of their dead. As awestruck as I am by what Ken Middleham's cameras have captured, there are only so many silent shots of ants milling about for minutes on end I can marvel at before it becomes insufferably tedious. I haven't seen a film this fascinated by the flipping of switches since the first half hour of Thunderbirds Are Go either. Its story is so thin that perhaps this was necessary to pad Phase IV out to feature-length. It clocks in at a lean 84 minutes but feels at least an hour longer than that. As eerie as its imagery can be -- say, a lifeless farmer claimed by the yellow poison, his tightly-clenched fist opening to reveal that ants have burrowed inside his palm -- Phase IV is worlds removed from the horrific thrills promised by its misleading theatrical poster.

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Then again, Paramount couldn't fathom what to do with the film in general, gutting out the most critical footage from its psychedelic closing montage. The film is titled Phase IV, and yet its fourth phase -- the climax of everything towards which Bass had been building -- was eviscerated. While this Blu-ray disc does faithfully preserve the cut of Phase IV that was released theatrically, it again fails to represent Bass' intentions. Worse still, this footage -- long assumed lost -- has not only recently been rediscovered but has even been screened publicly. Bass' original ending has not been reinstated into the film, nor has it been provided as an extra. In September, Olive Films released a statement about this situation:

In response to the many inquiries we've received about Saul Bass' PHASE IV - questions about the ‘lost' ending and which version is being released on October 27, 2015 - we can confirm we are releasing the original 1974 Paramount Pictures 84-minute theatrical cut, as it is currently the only version available for licensing. We have no doubt that fans of the film will be pleased with the Blu-Ray version, its first time available in HD.

Much has been written about PHASE IV since its initial theatrical release in 1974 including the thought-to-be-lost "original" or "expanded" ending of the film that was shown in 2012 following a special presentation of the theatrical release version in Los Angeles by The Cinefamily. It should be noted that before 2012 Saul Bass' original ending has never been shown theatrically, although select shots can be seen in the original theatrical trailer.

For what it's worth, that trailer isn't included on this Blu-ray disc either. I don't know if Olive Films actively pursued Phase IV's original ending, if there are legal complications preventing Paramount from licensing it, if the studio is keeping it to themselves until they issue their own release down the road, or what the story may be. Knowing that this footage is out there and has been restored, though, I suspect many of the film's most ardent admirers would just as soon wait for a more definitive release. Despite the fact that I would not count myself among that number, it is disheartening to sit through 80 minutes of buildup only to be deprived of the payoff. Phase IV's fanbase will have to settle for shaky audience footage on YouTube until something better comes along.

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Saul Bass' unparalleled command of design is a sight to behold. The miniature world that he creates and is so masterfully photographed throughout Phase IV remains breathtaking after more than forty years. I appreciate its use of science fiction as a critique about the state of our society. I'm impressed that Bass set out to make a work of art this defiantly unique, despite the fact Phase IV was unlikely to be widely embraced. Even though I do not enjoy the film, I still admire it. A definitive release would've met with a more enthusiastic recommendation. Though the very modest sticker price does ease the sting somewhat, my suggestion for a challenging film that lacks the extras demanded by its fanbase would still be to Rent It.

I'm at somewhat of a loss as to how to best describe this presentation of Phase IV, and its colors in particular are difficult to pin down. Take the early sequence in the corn field, for instance. One moment, the field is a distinct and unmistakeable green. In the next, it's tinted blue. The camera then cuts to a third, more verdant perspective before once again drenching itself in blue. Some sequences -- most memorably Ken Middleham's dazzling insect macrophotography -- are reasonably vibrant, but the palette elsewhere is often dull and devoid of life:

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Because the saturation of its colors is so erratic, it's unclear if this presentation was piecemealed together from multiple sources of varying quality, if insufficient attention was paid during the color timing of this transfer, or if this is entirely representative of the visual statement that Saul Bass intended to make. The image is flat and coarsely grainy, and there is unavoidable degradation through Phase IV's many, many optical effects. Speckling is persistent throughout but never poses any real cause for concern, and there's no damage of note. Despite its shortcomings, definition and detail are more robust than I assumed they would be, and I don't find Phase IV to be as soft as some message board comments have suggested. This is ultimately a decent presentation, but I am not left with the sense that this is the best that Phase IV could ever hope to look.

Phase IV creeps onto a single layer Blu-ray disc, opening up the mattes slightly to reveal an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

Presented in 24-bit, two-channel mono, Phase IV's DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack fares somewhat better. Its dialogue and narration are considerably cleaner and clearer than expected. A shouted line as Ernest and James bicker over what to do with Kendra does fall bafflingly out of sync, and the track suffers from its boxier moments, but persistent nuisances these are not. The score is reproduced well, and I especially adore the filter sweeps in its more synth-drenched stretches. A moderate hiss is pervasive throughout.

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There are no other audio options.


The Final Word
I could not possibly pass up the prospect of Saul Bass helming a science fiction tale about hyperintelligent ants. Part of me wishes I had. As visually spectacular as Phase IV is, its agonizingly sluggish pace leaves the film difficult to recommend to the uninitiated as a purchase sight-unseen. While this Blu-ray release does faithfully preserve Phase IV as it was presented theatrically some forty years ago, it doesn't feature the recently-discovered extended ending of the film that would have better represented Bass' original vision. To seasoned fanatics and to those curious to experience Phase IV for the first time, this disc is somewhat of a tough sell, even at this modest price point. Rent It.
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