Saturday, October 11, 2008

PHASE IV (1974)

This was part of a 70's resurfacing of the "animals-as-monsters" genre which first hit in the mid 50's. The first time around, it was largely triggered by fears of the atomic bomb; in the 70's, it was more explicitly about nature striking back due to pollution and growing ecosystem damage. This film is unusual in several respects: 1) the animals here, ants, do not grow to giant size but remain tiny, though possessed of some alien intelligence; 2) the cause of the change in the ants does not seem to be due to any ecological threat or a reaction to the ornery wickedness of mankind--in fact, the change is never really explained except for some unusual cosmic occurrence which is never clearly identified--a comet? sunspots?; 3) the only substantial special effect technique used here is a kind of micro-cinematography which is effective at rendering the tiny ants as genuine menaces. It's essentially a three-actor show: Nigel Davenport is a scientist who has set up a metallic dome in the desert to study the mysterious behavior of the ants, who seem to be able to communicate with either over large areas and in sophisticated fashion, and are attacking their natural predators in increasingly effective ways; Michael Murphy is his younger assistant; Lynne Frederick is a teenage girl caught by circumstance at their outpost when Davenport sprays the area with a foamy yellow poison (excellent visuals are used in this sequence). The ants are driven underground but retaliate by building, in one night's time, large pillars of sand with shiny, reflective tops aimed at the dome to catch the sunshine and cause the heat inside to rise. There is a computer and electric power in the dome, but the ants manage to get inside and cause havoc with the air conditioning and eventually, the computer. It's a little slow getting to the climax, and it's not a very exciting one, but it is satisfying.

The film seems to have been a low-budget affair (a bite that Davenport gets on his hand could have used a better makeup job to be more ghastly), the plot details are sloppy to say the least, the writing is bland, and, though the men are fine, Frederick isn't very good, though admittedly she is saddled with the worst dialogue in the film. The director, Saul Bass, is best known as a designer of titles and credits (PSYCHO, VERTIGO, WEST SIDE STORY, GOODFELLAS), and he gets away with glossing over important plot points by making the movie always interesting to look at. Frankly, the ants (photographed by Ken Middleham), though their intentions are enigmatic throughout, feel more important as characters than the people. The best scenes in the movie involve no humans: in one, a ball of poison is rolled and carried to the queen by a succession of drones who all die along the way. In another, the ants use a praying mantis in their plan to short-circuit the dome's power. The creepiest shot is one of rows and rows of dead ants, placed that way carefully by other ants. There are sly references to 2001, with opening shots of cosmic bodies in and out of alignment, and the glowing red eye of a computer is glimpsed occasionally. This is no tense nail-biter, and the climax could have used a bit more oomph, but it is a memorable quirky little artifact of its era. [DVD]

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