Monday, 30 December 2013

Phase IV (1974)

Although arguably best known for his work with other directors, particularly Alfred Hitchcock, Saul Bass had his one and only stab at making a feature film with this apocalyptic sci-fi oddity. Phase IV does mine some of the same territory as Hitchcock’s The Birds, with humans being challenged for their place at the top of the natural hierarchy, but instead of glamorous stars and taut, suspenseful set pieces, Bass goes for a mix of icy cold detachment, surreal and experimental montages, and a subtly unnerving design aesthetic.

An unexplained cosmic event has caused ants to evolve and seemingly develop an advanced "hive" mind, leading to some perplexing behaviour on their part. Two scientists set out to investigate strange towers that the ants have started building in the desert, but quickly find themselves outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, and soon, the future of the human race is under threat.

Bass started life as a graphic designer, making film posters, before moving into his memorable title sequences such as The Man with the Golden Arm, Vertigo and Psycho, so it is no surprise to see that his strengths as a director lie in the visual side of things.

Other ant themed films such as Them or Empire of the Ants, have the insects portrayed as equal or larger size as humans, using models or trick photography to establish this, but with Phase IV, Bass takes a different approach. He drafted in wildlife photographer Ken Middleham to shoot the amazing macro zoomed footage of ants that takes up a good chunk of the screen time. Any time the ants are shown physically adjacent to humans they are normal size, and rather than being physically overwhelming monsters, it is their ingenuity and overwhelming numbers that makes them seemingly unstoppable. By giving so much screen time to the magnified scenes, it does subtly imply a comparison and equality between the two species.

The story is more opaque than confusing, and there is extensive use of voiceover to provide the exposition, a trick sometimes used to cover over gaps or problems in the script or production. Here it works to the film's advantage, so that we are not bogged down in the narrative, and can focus on the visuals and the interplay between the two scientists, the excitable Hubbs and the more reticent Lesko.

Hubbs, (played by veteran British character actor Nigel Davenport), is the real human star of the show. Utterly devoted to his work, he is able to see the up close, micro level world of the ants, and their wider implications their behaviour has for the world. However, he seems utterly oblivious to the effects of his actions on the world between those two, that of individual human beings, especially when he starts wanting to provoke the ants.

Lesko, (Michael Murphy) is more quiet and reserved, preferring to use his analytical skills to try to understand and communicate with the ants, so makes less of an impact as a character, but still plays a pivotal role in the story. The weakest link in terms of characterisation is Kendra, played by the late Lynne Frederick, a young girl taken in by the scientists after the ants destroy her Grandparents farm, and Hubbs inadvertently kills her Grandparents. The role is underwritten, and the tensions caused by being trapped in the bunker with Hubbs are never really explored. This is not helped by Frederick being wooden and ineffectual, and having an accent that veers all over the Atlantic.

Things like this might have been picked up by a different director, but the impression I got, given the dominance of the visuals, is that that this is where Bass had the most talent and interest, and was perhaps quite happy to leave the actors to get on with things by themselves. This is fine when you have an actor of Davenport's calibre, but less so with one of Frederick's.

Although this is the only full length feature Bass ever directed, he had a rich body of work both in and out of the film world, and we can see some recurring themes from this in Phase IV. A glance at his film posters and opening titles, and even his corporate design work, shows a fondness for clear lines and geometric shapes


We see this in the designs of the ant nests, which incorporate clean, straight lines to give them a modernist look, unlike the rough and ready mounds of earth we are used to seeing, a neat way of underlining the mysterious change that the insects have undergone.

The rest of the film looks just as exquisite, especially the landscapes and homesteads, ravaged by the unstoppable insect army, adding to the feeling of inevitable defeat of mankind.

The only serious weak point is the way the film ends, not with a bang, but a whimper. However, this is not the fault of Bass, as somebody at Paramount studios decided that the final montage, which somehow manages to be even more disturbing and strange than anything that has gone on before, was too much, and cut it from the released version. Unseen for decades, thankfully, the footage has recently resurfaced, and it feels like the logical extension and conclusion of what has gone on before, both in terms of the style and content.

Although only about 3 minutes in length it distils everything that the film has been leading up to at this point, and is a master class in surreal cinematic montage. Commencing with our hero’s descent into a hole, to the underworld of the ant kingdom (Freud/Jung fans, read into that whatever you like), after that, without a single spoken word, it sums up the grim, seemingly inevitable vision the ants have for the future, with the inevitability of the end of humanity as the dominant species.
Aside from the apocalyptic elements, the hopeless irreversibility of the ending, the feeling that things will never be the same again, taps into the ideas of the human fear of impermanence, and the futility of fighting against it. This reading invites us to think of the ants representing death itself, something we can control only temporarily before succumbing to, something that will permanently change life and existence.