Posts Tagged ‘Phase IV’

Movie Reviews 327 – Phase IV (1974)

January 5, 2018

Phase IV is one of those older science fiction movies that once held a fond place in my heart as it was one of those films that seemed to play over and over in the days of limited local television channels. When I started devouring science fiction literature I was not averse to reading novelizations and was delighted to read noted science fiction author Barry N. Malzberg‘s adaptation of the script. But there was one more compelling reason that I have been wanting to rewatch this film again, one that may surprise even a few friends. It all has to do with the fundamental element of the story: Ants!

Just about a year ago my son developed a keen interest in ants and by that I mean the desire to have living ants as ‘pets’ although as you can imagine this is not an endeavor one can easily satisfy. He, and then I myself did a tremendous amount of reading and also used what is becoming more and more the educational tool of choice; YouTube videos, to learn everything we could. The information out there is astounding especially given that the very multitude in species of ants leads to differing habitats, nourishment requirements and other environmental factors to be considered. Even after devouring all the information we could I tried to temper his expectations as I worried that the hardest part, and the one necessary requirement to even begin, namely that of finding a recently mated fertile queen, may prove to too hard. But I need not have worried as my son demonstrated a keen eye and managed to find not one but six queens of varying species that were soon laying eggs which quickly progressed to larvae, pupae and then workers ants. But enough of our myrmecological ventures. Suffice to say that with all these ants in my head (and in my house) I wanted to revisit this movie not having seen it in thirty odd years.

The plot consists of some celestial event taking place that at first leaves no lasting after effects as far as anyone can tell.  Only after some time has passed does Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) note some odd behaviour in ants, particularly in one desert region. The ants, usually solitary as colonies now seem to be not only cooperating, but exhibiting other unexpected characteristics.

After alerting the authorities a lab is quickly established and Hubbs is sent in with only a mathematical pattern researcher James Lesko (Michael Murphy) as an aide. There they take note of towering smooth surfaced monoliths created by the ants and who have also evidently increased their foraging abilities to now include fully grown livestock.

Impatient to wait for other observable activities Hubbs decides to destroy the monoliths resulting in the ants attacking the lone farm remaining in the area and ending up with the sole survivor, a young girl (Lynne Frederick) being rescued by the scientists. When the scientists try to quell the formic uprising with a yellow chemical agent the surviving ants quickly develop yellow ants that are immune to the mixture. With the battle now in full swing the exhibit ever more sophisticated attacks on the compound while the three isolated occupants try to decipher crude messages received from the ants with the survival of mankind at stake.

The feel of the movie is one that I’ve always felt rivaled that of The Andromeda Strain, another early 70’s science fiction favorite. But alas, seeing it now again the acting feels shoddy and the script is not as rich as I hoped or remembered it to be.

Culminating with a semi-psychedelic ending befitting the era, the movie toys with the question of who is the observer and which species is really under a microscope. The emotional detachment to death exhibited by Hubbs, somewhat crazed, imitates that of the ants themselves. While the plot lacks any real depth and is ambiguous on many fronts (we’re never clear on the global extent of ant uprising for one) the mix of close up ant footage is still remarkable after all these years. I can only imagine how many takes and attempts it took to capture some of the more ‘purposeful’ actions we see them doing. The very solitude nature of colonies and aversion to mingling of species that the plot points out being uncharacteristic is shown on screen, which must have taken great effort and patience to film. They also somehow managed to get symbols neatly placed on the heads of a few ants hinting at either a caste or other distinction (aside from species) but sadly these are never further explored or explained.

One of the real oddities of this film is that it was directed by Saul Bass which may ring a bell, but not for his directorial efforts. Bass, trained as a graphic designer, was the first to define and then master of the concept of sophisticated opening sequences for films. He is much better known for creating some of the most memorable sequences including many for Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest) as well as dozens of others and also for many movie poster designs inspired by those sequences.

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