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Transformative Apocalypses: Phase IV and Southland Tales

  The main reason anyone wants to have an apocalypse, be that in religion or science fiction, is to wipe the slate clean and start all over again; very few of these events trigger an utter lack of reality as we know it, and extinction may occur, but we have the conceit that we will somehow carry on to the post-apocalypse where we can ride dune buggies around barren wastelands or whatever the movies have taught us. But what of those films where the Armageddon in question is the next phase in evolution? These largely appeared from the 1970s onwards, after Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's epic 2001: A Space Odyssey made such a huge cultural impact.

One of those which followed in that work's footsteps more than most was Saul Bass's Phase IV, which adopted its weird, sinister cosmic optimism and applied it to the world of insects. Recruiting Ken Needham, whose closeup photography had snared pseudo-documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle an Oscar a year or so previously, Bass set about getting philosophical with what from some angles looked like a mad science flick crossed with a killer bug effort. The Academy Award Winner had posited that insects were gaining intelligence and that's why we should fear them as they could very easily take over Planet Earth if they set their hive minds to it.

And that was essentially the premise of this troubled production which Paramount, as the studio releasing it, was so unhappy about how far out there Bass and company had ventured they were convinced they would never gather any profits from it, and to an extent they were right, but mainly because they got cold feet and tinkered with it to shave off the more bizarre elements. It was not enough: being bizarre was in this film's bones, and even ditching almost all of Bass's original ending was not about to make this into your conventional monster movie; that ending became available decades later and demonstrated they would have been better to keep it.

The film opens with a representation of a major event in the Solar System, where if we can trust our eyes the Sun has gone between Earth and the Moon, though in these images it is difficult to tell precisely what much of it is telling us. Whatever has happened, our mad scientist Nigel Davenport has twigged that it has had an effect on the world's ants, and that out in the Arizona desert they are sparking a revolution with their advances in intelligence. Thus in the laboratory he now shares with assistant Michael Moriarty and refugee from an ant attack Lynne Frederick, he finds himself under siege, both physically (the ants chew the wires) and philosophically.

The fact that there really are crazy raspberry ants which ruin electronics in the world may make you think this was prescient, but they have nothing on the exquisitely shot insects of Phase IV. Those super-critters have big plans for the world, they will transform it and reshape it in their own image as they psychically invite humanity to become their slaves or part of their collective: perhaps there is no real difference between those choices, as we see explicitly in the recovered finale. Though the film found a cult audience, mostly among those who caught it on television and thought "Wut?!", this sort of mindbending apocalypse did not exactly catch on with filmmakers.

Maybe writer/director Richard Kelly should have taken note, for once the third millennium hit, you couldn't move for apocalypses being proclaimed left and right, in fiction and in real life. Fertile ground for filmmakers, then, and with his Donnie Darko he had created a cult movie where the end of the world was prevented by a teenage boy. However, with his next film, Southland Tales, on arrival a suspiciously long time later, Kelly had evidently decided an apocalypse that went straight ahead was just what the planet, nay, the universe needed, and he embraced the concept with all his teenage boy at heart enthusiasm, concocting a total disaster - financially as well as artistically.

Yet the Donnie fans had faith that Kelly knew what he was doing rather than what it looked like: he had bitten off far more than he could chew by trying to translate the dense, paranoid, dangerously nonsensical stories of Philip K. Dick to the screen through Kelly's own immediately post-millennial prism. Here, whereas before Armageddon was a bad thing to be avoided, now it was something to be embraced, encouraged even because it represented such possibilities in transforming reality into a place where redemption ruled and even the biggest sinners around could be given succour by a vaguely defined set of metaphysical rules as and when existence changed.

All very ambitious, but alarm bells would ring as this, like Phase IV, was a piece tampered with in post-production by necessity since Kelly would not have been able to sell it to a distributor had he not allowed it to be edited down from its original near-three hour length. The reason for that was twofold: it was just too long to be comfortably watched in theatres in one go (this was pre-Avengers: Endgame, granted), and also its reception at a Cannes screening which was... not good, not good at all, had indicated some serious reshaping was necessary. Kelly had more input into that than Bass had into his efforts, but he would opine ever after the longer cut was better.

Bear in mind this was the man who rereleased Donnie Darko in a Director's Cut that helpfully overexplained every iota of the mystery that cast such a spell over its fans, thus spoiling it thoroughly and retrospectively, and every indication was that as overstuffed with ideas that went nowhere in particular as the recut Southland Tales was, extending them and increasingly the overall listless sensation was not going to help. We would see more of Janeane Garofalo, but that was about the biggest benefit you could envisage, even if Kelly was doing his explaining thing again; the mystery he had initially seemed so good at had soured into confusion.

Yet as with Phase IV, Southland Tales picked up a cult following, though unlike the ant movie, you had to seek it out rather than stumble across it. Maybe you were attracted by that one of a kind cast, led by Dwayne Johnson seemingly from an alternate universe where he opted to take wild chances with his roles, and supported by anyone from Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seann William Scott (as twins!) at the end of their bankability to extended cameos from "that guy/gal" turns like Zelda Rubinstein or Curtis Armstrong, all caught up in a blethering plot left unexplained by Justin Timberlake's baffling narration where the turmoil of the early two-thousands was supposed to be excused by the promise that it would all work out in a cosmic fashion. Comparing the two, Phase IV is no less ambitious, but more conceptually successful because it was a simple idea. Kelly's ideas eschewed simplicity at their peril, a lesson for any visionary to be.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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