Phase IV (1974)

PHASE IV (1974)
Article 3411 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-4-2010
Posting Date: 12-16-2010
Directed by Saul Bass
Featuring Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick
Country: USA
What it is: Mystical science fiction war thriller

Two scientists go to Arizona to study ants whose behavior has begun exhibiting very unusual signs. However, they soon find themselves fighting for their survival against a deadly and intelligent foe…

How do you stage an epic war thriller when your cast only consists of six people? Well, if one of the sides consists of a non-human species, you’re on the right track. And if this movie works as a war thriller at all, credit must go to Ken Middleham, the man who shot the ant sequences here (as well as the insect sequences in BUG and THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE); these sequences are chillingly effective, at least partially because you feel you can see the ants thinking, working out strategies, and waging a complex campaign against their human adversaries. After a while, the ants feel like the heroes; when you see a succession of ants on a suicide mission to drag a lump of poison to their queen so she can use it to develop ants who will be resistant to it, or the scene where an ant tries to take out an air conditioner guarded by a preying mantis, the effect is indeed like an epic war thriller. Still, as stunning as these scenes are, the movie does have a problem; it tries to delve into a mysticism (especially towards the end of the movie) that doesn’t quite work. One senses that the movie is missing something, and if director Saul Bass is to be believed, there was some studio tampering going on. Nevertheless, I’m willing to forgive its failings because its strengths are are so great; the movie is chilling, fascinating, and highly recommended.

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