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Phase IV (1974)
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by Jay Seaver

"These ants have their sights set much higher than a rubber tree plant."
4 stars

Here's an interesting question: If "Phase IV" were not a curiosity for being the only feature-length film directed by someone deservedly renowned for other contributions to the industry (assume that Saul Bass used a pseudonym that nobody caught on to the next thirty-five years, so it was the exact same film), would anybody remember it today? I say yes; it stands on its own as a genuinely creepy bit of sci-fi horror.

There's been a blast of radiation from space. Its effects aren't obvious, but in the Arizona desert, the ants are acting peculiarly - different species are not fighting each other over territory, and their natural predators are disappearing. Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) thinks that they are evolving, and he gets his government employers to assign him a mathematician, James Lesko (Michael Murphy), to help decode what appears to be communication among the ants. His suspicions appear to be well-founded - the local ants have developed a much more powerful hive mind than they had before. And they're on the outside of Hubbs's research station, while the scientists and Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick), a local girl whose farm home has been overrun, are trapped within.

Ants can be unnerving enough as it is - they are already more organized than many groups of people, they've got weird angular shapes, and we don't have enough of an instinctive grasp of the square-cube law to look at one carrying a stick many times its size and understand that such strength wouldn't scale up. Bass and writer Mayo Simon are therefore pretty clever in that they don't do a whole lot to exaggerate what these mutant ants are capable of. They don't grow enormous, or suddenly start talking in a language we can easily understand. Bass and Simon refuse to humanize them, which makes them a more implacable foe.

He also does well to bring in a specialist to shoot the ants, much the way other filmmakers would bring Bass in to create a slick set of opening titles. Ken Middleham, a specialist in shooting the very small for the likes of National Geographic, gets us right down at the ants' level, and those sequences are amazing: Excellent documentary footage integrated seamlessly into the narrative, manipulated in a way to advance the plot. The special effects by John Richardson are excellent as well, and its a tribute to both that it's hard to tell where one man's work stops and the other's starts.

As well as the filmmakers present the ants, the human characters might be problematic for some. Traditionally, this sort of movie has a group of ordinary people with whom the audience can easily identify (or at least a reporter whose job it is to translate the scientists' cryptic utterances into something we understand). Phase IV really doesn't have that. Davenport's Hubbs is close to the edge to start with, a sort of mad-scientist in waiting. Kendra spends most of the movie in a state of shock, which Lynne Frederick presents quite believably (though her accent tends to waver between English and American). Lesko is our narrator and the movie's hero, but even he can sometimes seem very detached. Especially in the beginning of the movie, he makes the sort of jokes scientists make, in that the rest of us aren't sure whether or not he's serious.

Put it all together, and it makes for a difficult movie that doesn't necessarily age well. If you're able to get sucked into its world, Phase IV is relentlessly creepy and quite suspenseful; the ants prove quite resourceful in ways that are all the more threatening because they don't have a human face that takes pride in its cleverness. Of course, that concept can sometimes seem close to absurdity, and what looked high-tech and futuristic in 1974 is, well, quaint in the twenty-first century.

For all that, "Phase IV" holds up, and not just as an interesting footnote. It's definitely a weird movie, but more weird in that it sends shivers up the spine rather than causes one to wonder what this otherwise well-regarded guy was thinking.

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originally posted: 07/04/10 01:43:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2013 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/09/11 GEORGE B. FEIST Classic fave of mind from the 70s 4 stars
7/04/10 art ANOTHER FILM i saw on NBC"S SATURDAY NIGHT DEAD,i was out cold in 30 mins. 1 stars
6/03/04 Monster W. Kung Surprisingly decent. 3 stars
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  02-Sep-1974 (PG)
  DVD: 01-Oct-2008



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