ICFIFC: Phase IV (1974)

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Monday, August 19, 2013

ICFIFC: Phase IV (1974)

  • Directed: Saul Bass
  • Produced: Paul Radin
  • Written: Mayo Simon
  • Starring: Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick
  • Music:
    • Brian Gascoigne (chief composer)
    • Stomu Yamashta (montage music)
    • David Vorhaus & Desmond Briscoe (electronic music)
  • Editing: Willy Kemplen
  • Cinematography: Dick Bush
  • Studio:
    • Alced Productions
    • Paramount Pictures
  • Distributed: Paramount Pictures
  • Rated:
  • Release Date: September 1974
  • Running Time:
    • 84 minutes (US theatrical release)
    • 93 minutes (Preview version)
  • Country: USA, UK
  • Language: English

Saul Bass Phase IV is a 1974 American science fiction film.  It is the only feature-length film directed by the noted title sequence designer Saul Bass.  The interiors of the film were shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the exterior locations were shot in Kenya, Africa even though the film is set in the Arizona desert of the United States.

The film was a box office flop and as a result this was the only feature film directed by Bass.  It has since gained a cult following due to TV airings beginning in 1975 and also being shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000 during the KTMA era, episode 9 to be exact.

Due to some unknown cosmic event, listed in "phases," ants have undergone rapid evolution and developed a hive mind.  A scientific team begins investigating strange towers and geometrically perfect designs that ants have started building in the desert.  The local human population flees the strangely acting ants. James Lesko (Murphy) and Ernest Hubbs (Davenport) set up a computerized lab in a sealed dome located in an area of significant ant activity in Arizona.  The ant colony and the scientific team, along with a holdout rural family, make war against each other, with the ants being the more effective aggressors.  The narrative uses the scientific team as the main protagonists, but there are also ant protagonists going about their duties in the colony.  The ants immunize themselves to the humans' chemical weapons and soon infiltrate their lab.  Teams of ants penetrate the computers of the lab and short them out. Kendra Eldrige, a young woman who had taken refuge with the scientists, abandons the lab.

Hubbs and Lesko begin to have different plans for dealing with the ants.  While Lesko thinks he can communicate with the ants using messages written in mathematics, Hubbs plans to wipe out a hill he believes to be the ants' central hive.  Delirious from an ant bite, Hubbs can barely get his boots on, but is determined to attack the hive and kill the ant queen.  Instead, Hubbs literally falls into a trap - a deep ditch that soon fills with ants that consume him.  Helpless to save Hubbs, and concluding that the ants will soon move into desert areas where their growth will exceed man's ability to control them, Lesko chooses to follow Hubb's plan.  He sets out to the hive with a canister of poison.  Descending into the hive, Lesko hunts for the queen but instead finds Kendra.  In the film's cryptic finale, the two embrace.  Lesko realizes that far from destroying the human race, the ants' plan is to change them, making them a part of the ants' world.

Despite the lurid tone of its poster art based on one of the shocking images from the film, Phase IV approaches its subject matter naturalistically, with relatively little melodrama.  The film contains relatively little dialogue, mainly relaying the storyline visually.  Interestingly, the theatrical release poster was not designed by Saul Bass, even though he was a noted poster designer.

The entomologist Ken Middleham who shot the insect sequences for Phase IV also shot the insect sequences for the documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle.  Both feature extensive use of close-up photography of actual insects.

According to the book Future Tense, "Bass originally filmed a spectacular, surreal montage lasting four minutes, showing what life would be like in the 'new' Earth, but this was cut by the distributor."  The montage was supposed to suggest that the two surviving characters were altered by the ants creating the next step in evolution for humanity and insects.  Shots from the original montage sequence appear in the theatrical trailer, which was likely prepared before cuts were made to the film.

In June 2012, a few faded prints of the original ending sequence were found in the Saul Bass Collection at the Academy Film Archive, and this excerpt screened to the public in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily cinematheque following a showing of the theatrical version.  The montage ending, along with a brand new 35mm print of the released version premiered on December 1, 2012 in Austin, Texas at the Alamo Drafthouse as a part of a full day of films by Saul Bass.  The alternate ending had been included in preview versions of the film, according to Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences representatives on site.  The original film elements for the montage were located in Paramount's holdings, then digitally scanned and color-timed for presentation.

Upon its initial theatrical release, the film had mixed reviews.  It won the 1975 Grand Prix Award at the International Festival of Science Fiction Films in Triest, Italy.  Over time, the film has gained a cult following.  Overall the film has earned a relatively high 83% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Praise is mainly focused on the highly original visualization of the film, while the human characterizations are sometimes described as one-dimensional.

This is the first film to depict a geometric crop circle, in this case created by super-intelligent ants.  The film predates by two years the first modern reports of crop circles in the United Kingdom, and it has been cited as a possible inspiration or influence on the pranksters who started this phenomenon.

The film has been a significant influence on a recent generation of science fiction film directors and other visual media artists.  In an interview, the Argentine director Nicolas Goldbart described Phase IV as having had a profound cinematic influence on him.  In his science fiction film Phase 7, Phase IV is playing on a television in the apartment of the protagonists.  The writer/director, Panos Cosmatos, described Phase IV as having been a very significant influence on the look and feel of his science fiction film Beyond the Black Rainbow.

Yeasayer, The Band!The music video by Radical Friend for Yeasayer’s 2009 song “Ambling Alp” is an homage to Phase IV, and the video's images are inspired by some of the visual elements of the film.

This film is available on VHS from Paramount Pictures, the studio that made the movie.  A DVD was released by Legend Films in 2008.  The DVD is a bare bones release of the film and does not have any special features, such as the original trailer which had scenes cut from the theatrical version of the film.


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