Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Film Ramble: Phase IV

Phase IV was the feature debut of famed title sequence director Saul Bass - and since there aren't many people in the history of the human race who could justify being described as "famed title sequence director," it's worth adding that Bass, in his day job, was responsible for some of the most iconic imagery in film history.  What springs to mind when you think of Vertigo?  If it's the legendary title sequence or that inspired poster then it's Bass's work you're remembering, not Hitchcock's.  And as well as Hitchcock, Bass was the designer of choice for directors like Preminger, Wilder, Kubrick and Scorsese

But he only ever directed one feature film himself, and for that, he chose to make ... well, what is Phase IV exactly?  In its crudest terms, it's the story of a tiny handful of humans - two at first and then three - battling super-intelligent ants in the American desert.  Which makes it sound like THEM! or possibly Tremors, two films it has almost nothing in common with.  It most certainly isn't a horror movie, though it has horror elements, and though it is a science-fiction movie, it's one far more absorbed with scientific process than technology or big ideas.  In fact, through it's three distinct chapters it skips genre quite unapologetically, as the scale of the threat metamorphoses from "gee, these ants sure are getting feisty", through "gee, these ants are putting up a much better fight than you'd expect from, you know, ants," to ... well, that would be a spoiler, and to spoil Phase IV would be a shame, because amongst its many virtues are that it absolutely isn't like the film you're imaging if you haven't seen it and that it resolutely refuses to go to the places you're expecting even while you watch it.

None of which makes it any easier to describe, or to explain why it is absolutely one of the best and most under-rated science fiction films of the seventies, which as anyone who knows anything knows was the undisputed heyday for smart, ideas-based sci-fi.  But perhaps the problem in describing it is Phase IV's greatest virtue; I can't think of another film where every single element is so subtly off-kilter, or where that perpetual, muted strangeness serves the film's ends so perfectly.

Watching it for perhaps the sixth time, though, what struck me even more forcefully is the film's lack of bias: we spend as much time with the ants - courtesy of some astonishing, how-the-hell-did-they-do-that? miniature shots and model work - as we do with the humans, watching their plans, their organization, all the minutiae of their minute existence.  Some critics have suggested that a problem with the film is that we're never quite convinced of the ant threat, (they are, after all, just plain old normal-sized ants), but returning to it I can't help thinking that that's entirely deliberate.  Phase IV is not an invasion movie.  It's something closer to a faux-documentary, an aliens-eye view of a conflict in which humanity is but one side and - as personified by Nigel Davenport's fun portrayal of unbounded scientific hubris - not necessarily the one we should be rooting for.

In fact all of the film's immediate flaws - a wide-eyed performance from Lynne Frederick, the methodical pace, the fact that much of the filming was clearly sound stage-bound - become virtues by the end, when we come to appreciate just what it is we've been watching, and that it was never merely a tale of heroic scientists battling eeeeevil super-intelligent bugs.  And the rest of its virtues are plain to see from the beginning: the unique, unsettling score, mixing guitar and electronica in a way that still feels current, the superlative insect photography, Bass's gloriously stylized direction and design aesthetic, and Mayo Simon's sparse script, which gives us exactly the information we need and not one word more.

So what is Phase IV?  It's the absolutely definitive super-intelligent-ants-against-humanity pseudo-documentary art-house sci-fi movie, that's what ... and if that really isn't enough to make you want to see it then here's the trailer:

You can pick up the region 1 DVD (sadly there's never been a region 2 release) on Amazon here, at a currently very reasonable price.  And lastly, for those who've already seen it, a couple of treats I discovered today: a link to the book adaptation and the original - very trippy, much less ambiguous - ending, cut after baffled test audiences ran screaming indifferently from the cinema:


  1. It's one of the weirdest things I've ever seen. In a good way. Love the lost ending. I think it adds a lot - can't work out why they dropped it.

  2. I have mixed feelings about the original ending, but there's a lot to be said for it ... some of the imagery is astounding, as good as or better than anything in the surviving film. It's certainly freaky beyond belief.