1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Phase IV

Saul Bass, more known for his graphic design (logos especially), film posters and creative work on movie credits, directed just one feature film -- a sci-fi film -- released in September of 1974. Phase IV (P4) is a mixture of exiting tropes, telling a fairly conventional 70s mankind-is-doomed story. The primary cast is spare. Nigel Davenport plays Dr. Hubbs, the traditional bearded man of Science. Michael Murphy plays the younger, computer-savy hero scientist: James Lesko. Lynne Frederick plays the traditional damsel in distress.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A narrator tells how Earth's scientists watched an astronomical event with great anticipation and dread. They knew something significant would happen, but did not know what. The event passed with no apparent result, because what changed were Earth's ants. They became collectively sentient. A pair of scientists are dispatched to the Arizona desert to investigate and study reports of strange phenomena. Hubbs is an older entomologist. Lesko is the younger cryptographer. The ants stay quiet, so there is little to study. Hubbs and Lesko warn a nearby farm family to leave the area, but they don't. The institute that sent the team grows impatient, as does Hubbs, so he blows up some of the ants' square towers. This does prompt an attack on the station and the Eldgridge farm. The family flee, but crash near the station, attacked by ants. Hubbs deploys a yellow toxin spray that kills off the attacking hoards. When Hubbs and Lesko emerge (in hazmat suits) they find the dead family, but "teen" daughter Kendra is alive in an abandoned house's cellar. Lesko wants Hubbs to get Kendra safely away, but Hubbs does not call for help. He worries that the Institute will pull the plug on the project if they knew about the deaths. Lesko starts to decipher the audible language of the ants. The ants sabotage the station's AC unit and built up a ring of mirrors to reflect the desert sun onto the station. The heat shuts down the computer. Operating at night, Lesko sends a message to the ants -- a simple geometric shape -- to show that humans are sentient too. Lesko uses a loud high-pitched tone to crumble the mirror towers. This kills lots of ants too. Ants drag some of the yellow toxin to the queen, who samples it, and starts laying yellow eggs -- new ants immune to the yellow toxin. The ants later send a message to Lesko, which he figures out means that they want one of the people in the station. Kendra thinks it must be her, so she sacrifices herself to save the two men, walking out into the desert. The ants find her. Somewhat demented from an infected ant bite, Hubbs goes out into the desert to go kill the queen and end the war. He falls in a trap pit and the ants swarm him. Lesko tries to spray blue toxin around and tries to go down in a big tunnel and spray the queen. Instead, he finds Kendra rising up from the sand floor of the chamber. The two of them are changed, somehow. They are now obedient members of the sentient collective, awaiting orders. Phase IV. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is a lot of great macro photography of real ants, which adds to the somber-serious tone. (no silly monster puppets to spoil the story) There are some great visuals too, as Bass uses distance, texture and color contrasts to give his film a richness for the eyes. Beyond all that, there is a lot to chew on mentally in the story.

Cultural Connection
Age of Anxiety -- As the euphoric days of the Age of Aquarius faded, the 70s were years of much anxiety. Worries that the world's population would outstrip food supplies very soon (Soylent Green), or that a quirk virus would wipe out Earth's food supply (No Blade of Grass), or that mankind would somehow screw up his home planet, rendering it uninhabitable.Audiences seemed eager for movies that validated (or stroked) the populist sense of enviro-doom.

Them! 2.0 -- Fans of 50s sci-fi can see some parallels (intentional or otherwise) to the the classic 1954 film, Them!. The story takes place in a desolate southwestern desert. A few investigators try to discover what happened in the area. A family is wiped out except for a young girl (or woman) who is in shock over the experience. In P4, the ants are not giant sized from nuclear radiation, but normal sized and made sentient by some external freak of nature. In Them!, human sovereignty is upheld by conventional weapons. (Bazooka Saves The Day) In P4, the ants win. (Bazookas Won't Save Us.)

Archetypes -- Mayo Simon's story uses some comfortably familiar characters, not so much as a lazy shortcut to a script, but for their symbolism. Hubbs is the old-school scientist. (eccentric bearded professor type), but in that, he also represents the old paradigm in which Man imposes HIS will on nature and doggedly refuses to give up the top of the hill. James Lesko is, on the surface of things, the archetypal hunky hero: young, smart, resourceful and reasonably attractive (I guess). Lesko is symbolic of the youth of the 70s. He was techno-savy and had more compassion and empathy. Where Hubbs was obsessed with defeating the ants, Lesko was obsessed with understanding them. Kendra is, on the surface of things, they requisite damsel in distress. She does little beyond scream, run and look vulnerable. Yet, she too represents another side of the youth of the day (or at least how they perceived themselves). She was young and innocent (of the sins of the fathers). She was more of a refugee/viciim in an elders' war. These three archetypes, and their symbolism, tell a 70s view of the world.

Vichy Adam and Eve -- In the end, it is implied that the ants somehow change Kendra and Lesko. The ants don't kill every human, but preserve these two as a sort of Adam and Eve -- a new couple to exist within the Reich of the ants. In this, the two are like the French citizens in Vichy -- they are an occupied and subjugated population awaiting orders from their new overlords.

The Phases -- It's easy to miss the text-on screen intervals that label the four "Phases," but they're there. The movie opens with Phase I: the awakening of the ants. Phase II is the ants asserting their sovereignty over the area. Phase III is the assault, siege and conquest of the human holdouts. Phase IV, where the movie ends, is the assimilation of humans (which starts with Lesko and Kendra) into the any empire.

Smarter Ants -- A few years later, another ants-conquer-the-world movie will come out. Empire of the Ants. It will be much less cerebral and more in the traditional Big Bug sub-genre. The ants in P4 are normal-sized real ants, so avoid the risible movie monster aura. They work better as a villain because they're more real. What changed was not their size, but their consciousness. They weren't frightening because they were large, but because they (the millions of them) got smart.

Bottom line? P4 is a bit obscure in the old movies market, but definitely worth seeking out. A few things are rather dated -- such as a room-sized computer using magnetic reels and punch tape -- but Bass has a great eye, and does a fine job of creating a moody, claustrophobic variant on the people-trapped scenario. Modern viewers of face-paced action films (explosion-a-minute) may find the pace slow and lacking in action. This is a thinking movie, not an adrenaline rush movie.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Michael Murphy does a great job playing everyone, and to me, he's the character I identify most with from this film.

Also of a similar trope: "The Hellstrom Chronicles" which is not to be missed either.