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  Phase IV Empire Of The Ants
Year: 1974
Director: Saul Bass
Stars: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, Alan Gifford, Robert Henderson, Helen Horton
Genre: Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Phase I. While there was the recent cosmic event in nearby outer space, everyone was looking to the skies, but they would have been better off looking to Planet Earth, for there was a major change about to occur. Some scientists noticed it, led by Dr Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), who realised that something was happening to the ant colonies of the Arizona desert: they were no longer rivals, and were now putting aside their diferences by teaming up for reasons unknown. Accompanied by his assistant, James Lesko (Michael Murphy), an expert in mathematics and animal communication, Hubbs hoped to work out what was going on.

And what was going on? To be honest, you never really find out, even at the end, although there are hints that this was a dressed up version of all those world domination science fiction movies of the fifties. So unlike Them! the ants were not giant sized, but they had similar ideas of pursuing a goal of taking over, and with that a heavy dose of metaphysical, altering your place in the universe pretentiousness. Some have judged Phase IV as having ideas above its station just as its creepy-crawlies do, but others find it highly intriguing.

Not least because the film looks so striking, mainly down to the ant photography courtesy of Ken Middleham, who had brought the no-less-apocalyptic The Hellstrom Chronicle to life with his brilliant camerwork, not only making the ants' intelligence something believable but helping to tell the story as well. You get to understand what the critters are saying to each other even though you never hear them speak (wisely, as that would have tipped the film too far over into the ridiculous), so when the little guy with the green abdomen, who is the brains of the outfit, converses with the queen, the communication is tangible.

Phase IV was the sole feature directed by Saul Bass, a highly talented designer who had created some classic posters and title sequences (for example, Psycho and Walk on the Wild Side were just two of his), and he brought a distinctive visual style to Mayo Simon's script, with the ant towers and a kind of crop circle illustrating the insects' preoccupation with geometric shapes. Mathematics is the universal language says Lesko, and he somehow manages to send messages of simple shapes to the colony, which return in kind. Quite how this happens is never entirely explained, however.

It's not that Bass let his story get away from him, but he was not helped by the studio recutting the film after he was satisfied with it, with particular damage being done to the climactic, 2001: A Space Odyssey-style ending that was meant to leave the audience with their minds suitably blown. It's still an arresting way to end a science fiction film, and certainly more provocative than William Castle's Bug which came out soon after and also featured intelligent insects. Before you reach that, there's a wealth of jargon to sit through as Murphy and Davenport endeavour to stop the ants from developing any further, not exactly assisted by Kendra (Lynne Frederick), a young refugee from their destruction, but once you accept that the humans are not the heroes in this, and it's the ants we're meant to be backing, you'll get on with Phase IV pretty well. Incidentally, the film never reaches the stage of the title and leaves you to speculate on what it might be. Music by Brian Gascoigne.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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