Monday, July 28, 2008
Phase IV, the only directorial feature from famed credits designer Saul Bass, is a highly unusual science fiction film in which the extraordinary menace (a colony of highly evolved ants) figures much more prominently than the human characters fighting against them. Indeed, the film begins at ground level and it is nearly ten minutes before a human character even appears onscreen. Even then, Bass slowly, even hesitantly introduces humanity into the picture, starting with a shot of a jeep ponderously moving through a barren landscape, then shooting the two men who get out of the vehicle from a low angle, filtered through blades of grass, as though the ants were looking up at them. Before this, the film opens with a near-abstract montage that veers from the reaches of deep space, where puzzling motions in the planets and stars signal unknown changes, into the depths of the earth, where ants crawl and skitter around on mysterious errands. Right from the start, Bass gets intimate with these inscrutable creatures, granting them closeups and even personalities. They communicate with each other, though we cannot know what they say, and their every action is infused with purpose. Bass' camera traces their paths and their actions as though he were following a conventional narrative, perhaps a more traditional horror story in which the camera tracks the monster as he stalks and kills. These ants are also killers, they are the film's "monster" by default, but unlike the gigantic irradiated ants of the 50s sci-fi classic Them!, the menace of these ants is subtle, subterranean, and driven by intelligence rather than rampaging brute force.
This makes Phase IV a very tricky brand of sci-fi horror, one perfectly suited to Bass' unique sensibility. The film builds it horror not through special effects or violence, but through the subtle development of atmosphere, and Bass has infused every second of the film with an escalating sense of dread. A large portion of this must be credited to the sound design, which contrasts the dry, crackling sounds of the ants mandibles crunching, antennae and legs scraping against various surfaces against the eerie, atonal electronic soundtrack. The opening scenes establish this sound palette almost immediately, as Bass dives into the subterranean world of the ants, allowing their noises to dominate the soundtrack even as their calcified bodies fill the screen. There's something inherently terrifying about seeing tiny, unknown worlds magnified in this way. It's an effect David Lynch used to good purpose in the famous opening of Blue Velvet, and here as there it suggests the creepy, crawly evil lurking underneath ordinary reality. Nature is frightening whenever one stops to think about it, and Bass' unflinching intimacy with these insects invites one to contemplate the horror of the natural world at length.
It must be said, the film is much less interesting whenever it abandons the ants for any length of time to focus on more human-scale dramas. Bass' instinct for design and interesting visuals is perfectly suited to abstract montage and dialogue-less documentation of ants at work, but his talents apparently do not extend to working with actors or filming human drama. It doesn't help that in this respect, the script he's working with is entirely generic and perfunctory. The film's central plot concerns a duo of scientists, the supremely rational Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and the humanist Lesko (Michael Murphy), who are studying the ants and who soon become involved in a war against the colony. They quickly pick up the orphaned innocent Kendra (Lynne Frederick), after accidentally killing her grandparents with poison meant for the ants an incident that both Kendra and the film shrug off with an alarming lack of emotion or concern. To some extent, Bass uses the limitations of the film's human interest to his own advantage. He films the scientists with a cold, clinical eye that connects them with the ants, as just a few more specimens in his cinematic jar. Even as they observe the ants, the ants are observing and toying with them, and Bass observes both sets of antagonists with the same objective gaze, his camera panning in the same precise, steady tracking shots whether he's in subterranean tunnels or the shiny metal insides of the scientists' outpost.
The result is a film that sides most closely with the coolly anti-humanist Hubbs, who reacts to the deaths of Kendra's grandparents with near-complete indifference, reserving his emotion for the excitement he feels when studying the ants' behavior. The film's most disconcerting aspect is its profound equivalence of human and animal life; the deaths of ants, crushed under rocks or eaten by other insects or poisoned by the scientists, are felt even more strongly than the film's human deaths. Bass privileges the point of view of the ants, suggesting that human dominance and pre-eminence is merely a matter of perspective. From another point of view, humanity is just one more organic presence on a planet thriving with many varieties of life. In one scene, as a thick liquid poison is sprayed over the ants outside, Bass cuts back and forth between shots of the ants dying, writhing in the yellow liquid, and the humans who are also trapped in this deadly downpour, struggling through the thick sheets of yellow rain. The intent is obvious: humans and ants dying together from the same cause, their struggles so similar in the face of death, very different forms of life unified in the end.
This cold, distanced perspective is enhanced by Bass' rigid and geometric visual aesthetic. There is no credits sequence at the opening of Phase IV, no sign of the playful assemblages of form and color that Bass invariably deployed in his inventive credits designs for numerous Hollywood productions. Instead, his fascination with geometry and color have been translated into the film itself, channeled into the design of the sets and the camerawork he employs. Geometric forms play a crucial role in the film, from the circular scientific station with pipes radiating out from its sides at regular intervals, to the strange towers the ants build, to the rectangular designs the ants carve into a corn field. "Mathematics is a universal language," Lesko says at one point, as he attempts to communicate with the ants' hive mind intelligence. Clearly, Bass agrees, and his mise en scène is all hard lines and rigidly defined shapes. The research station's outer walls are constructed from a series of end-on-end triangles, forming diamonds, and the ants amass a corresponding array of reflective diamonds that they build up around the outpost, reflecting light inward to overheat their human enemies. In another fascinating sequence, Bass films the inside of an air conditioning unit as an ant and a praying mantis stage a battle amidst the coils and grids of the machinery.
It's in sequences like this that Bass' genius is most apparent. His eye for geometric forms sometimes falls upon an image of startling emotional impact like the eerily quiet ant graveyard where a single black ant skitters between neatly arranged rows of the dead but only in relation to the ants. His aesthetic here might almost be described as anti-human in its rigidity and asceticism. The point of view of the ants is privileged. They are never quite anthropomorphized, but given an emotional depth and complexity that's almost entirely absent from the human characters. The ants are mysterious, unreadable, and their black-eyed gaze in Bass' closeups seems to communicate something strange and frightening as they catch the camera's stare head-on. Ironically, Bass gets no such fascinating performances from his human actors, who are more like robots mechanically fulfilling tasks. Frederick's performance is a hilariously awful amateur turn, her wide eyes and cracking voice a parody of innocence, and she can't even keep from slipping back and forth between American and British accents; she's cute though. Davenport and Murphy make out a bit better, if only because their roles don't demand much more from them than scientific precision and a poorly defined contrast between their characters. Even there, the supposedly caring and humanistic Lesko doesn't come across as much less of a robot than rationalist Hubbs. Their opposition is sketched in the broadest of strokes, and Bass' interest obviously lies elsewhere, with the film's non-human characters.
Even saddled with a somewhat plodding narrative and cardboard-thin characters, Phase IV winds up being a fascinating sci-fi experiment, thanks almost entirely to Bass' visual ingenuity and the decision to make the ants the film's real focus. The ants' struggles are dramatized and intensified even as the human drama is stripped down and dulled. In one wonderful sequence, the ants conduct a chain of self-sacrifice, dragging a piece of poison back to their lair, a new ant joining the line as each one keels over and dies in turn. This remarkable feat is aimed at immunizing the colony's queen, allowing her to produce new offspring who are resistant to the poison the science is certainly shaky, to say the least, but the scene is no less eye-catching for the way it dramatizes the emotions and spirit of these expressionless creatures. As he did with the earlier scene of the poison rain, Bass cuts back and forth between the ants' subterranean struggles and the efforts of the scientists inside to decode the ants' language. The parallel cutting creates a contrast between the small-scale adventure narrative going on underground, and the rather dull, abstracted analysis of the scientists, who spend their time mostly staring at computer readouts. It's an interesting and even wryly funny scene, mocking the boredom created by the script's more prosaic elements even as Bass' inventive approach to this material elevates the film far above its B-movie sci-fi origins.