Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Phase IV (1974)

I saw this over the weekend at the New Beverly in a beautiful 35mm print. It's funny how you just flat-out can't appreciate certain things until a later phase in life. Back about ten or fifteen years ago, when I rented Saul Bass's Phase IV, I thought of it as a mildly entertaining man-against-nature sci-fi movie. Watching it this time, my thoughts were something along the lines of, "Holy shit, how do you wrangle an ant and a praying mantis to cooperate in the staging of a f&*@ing tiny action sequence?"

In the post-atomic era, there have been a lot of movies in which humans fight nature-run-amok, but this is one of the few where the creatures (here, super-intelligent ants) are treated more sympathetically than the various human protagonists. There's a scene in this movie where a scientist presses a button and, outside in the desert, a thousand ants are covered in a yellow, waxy, smothering pesticide. Later the scientists use a sonic vibration weapon that causes, from the ants' perspective, the rupture of the San Andreas fault, with tiny rockslides crushing their miniscule bodies. It's all like a teensy version of Saving Private Ryan, complete with the wonderfully ridiculous (but nonetheless, perfectly staged with actual ants) scene in which the itsy-bitsy ant corpses are lined up in a tiny underground morgue.

Obviously, this movie wouldn't have been made without the influence of Stanley Kubrick and 2001, but it still represents a unique vision all the same. Phase IV is the only film directed by Saul Bass, who was mostly famous for having designed the title sequences of Vertigo and Psycho for Hitchcock and The Age of Innocence and Casino for Scorsese, but he was also one of the world's most successful graphic designers, coming up with the logos for United Airlines and AT&T, so it's not really surprising that his one film would have striking, innovative visuals. The above-ground drama is somewhat less compelling, with easy-going young scientist Michael Murphy contending with brusque, all-business scientist Nigel Davenport (he might as well just wear a sign reading "Cold Logic" around his neck) with a local teenage girl hanging around for no good reason - except that her presence allows Bass to indulge in a curious bit of micro-erotica, as the movie's Hero Ant, having escaped from a lab, wanders through her clothing and up and down over the contours of her sleeping body in one sequence.

The movie ends with one of those annoying '70s post-2001 'huh?' endings (pretty much the same ending as Star Trek: The Motion Picture) but this is a film about the cinematic journey, not the oblique destination.


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