August 14, 2016

Phase IV (1974)

Saul Bass is a legend of American cinema. As a designer of opening title sequences and promotional posters he worked with some of the very best filmmakers Hollywood ever had: Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Robert Wise, to name just a few. In the field of title design he was pretty much unparalleled, yet despite his decades-long career in film he only tried directing one. That one film was the 1974 science fiction thriller Phase IV.

In Phase IV, an unidentified stellar phenomenon has affected the ant population of the Earth, and caused them to rapidly evolve and develop a unified hive mind. Investigating this worrying phenomenon are scientists James Lesko (Michael Murphy) and Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), who set up a research station in the Arizona Desert. When the advancing ants destroy a nearby farm - with one survivor - Lesko begins working on a plan to communicate the ants directly while Hubbs attempts to destroy the colony completely.

The screenplay is by Mayo Simon, an American playwright and TV writer who enjoyed a brief late career resurgence writing science fiction: in addition to Phase IV he also wrote the 1969 space thriller Marooned, the killer robot sequel Futureworld, and the pilot episode of The Man from Atlantis. None of those films particularly generate enthusiasm, and sadly Phase IV fails as well. It is a remarkably old-fashioned kind of science fiction, in which scientists passively investigate a phenomenon and the thrills come from the thoughtful discoveries more than life-and-death tension or edge-of-your-seat thrillers. Part of the problem is the scale: the film purports a world-wide evolution of ants into a united, enormously dangerous force, yet our entire experience of that global threat is three people trapped in a shed in the middle of Arizona (actually filmed in Kenya).

It is not surprising, given the style of his film titles, that Bass has a very structured and formal manner of presenting and framing scenes. There is a particularly bold use of colour which threatens to pushes the film out of a realist style, yet it also makes it an oddly hypnotic experience. All of the individual problems should make the film a dreary and unwatchable mess, and despite all of the flows it becomes rather addictive to watch. It does not make a huge amount of sense - particularly its abrupt and open-ended conclusion (the studio forced Bass to cut the last few minutes) - but it is certainly interesting to watch.

Nigel Davenport gives a grand, over-the-top portrayal of Ernest Hubbs, the scientist whose theories about ant evolution set the story rolling. Davenport, an experienced British theatre actor, delivers a particularly theatrical performance. It is entertaining, but also wildly out of tone with the rest of the film. When Hubbs is bitten by a venomous ant, and begins to suffer delirium as a result, it works as Davenport's excuse to real let loose with an excessive eye-rolling mania that is easier to mock than treat seriously.

Lynne Frederick plays Kendra, the sole survivor of an ant attack on a nearby farm. She is hamstrung by the script, which forces her to be a relatively massive and emotionally upset victim to be protected and rescued. It is a shame.

Robert Altman regular Michael Murphy plays Lesko in a much more grounded, realistic fashion, and to an extent he acts as a viewpoint through which the audience can navigate the film. His incredulity at the ants' evolution matches our own, and as both Hubbs and Kendra drift off into shock and mental illness Lesko remains the characters upon whom we can depend.

This is a deeply flawed film, and certainly not a particularly good one. It does demonstrate great promise on Bass' part, however, and it is a shame he never directed a second film to allow his skills to develop.

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