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Friday, July 04, 2008

DVD Review: Phase IV (1974)

I can't believe I haven't done a review of Phase IV prior to now. I was first exposed to this obscurity via the infamous "season zero" of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Upon tracking down the old VHS, Phase IV has become one of my favorite movies. Now, thanks to Legend Films (who have other DVDs with a Mike Nelson commentary, coincidentally) Phase IV is finally out on DVD.

Phase IV is a movie about ants. Not gigantic ants like a Bert I. Gordon or Corman flick. These are small, regular sized ants. But ants that become highly intelligent and attempt to take over.

So, we have two scientists out in the desert investigating strange occurrences caused by the ants. They've killed livestock, run people off their land and built a bunch of Stonehenge like monoliths. Michael Murphy plays James, the "good cop" scientist, trying to learn their language and figure out what they're after while Nigel Davenport as Dr. Hubbs becomes more and more engrossed in defeating the ants, regardless of the cost.

Hubbs takes delight in shaking the ant farm, so to speak, which always results in disaster and the ants evolving. Because of Hubbs' recklessness, they pick up Kendra (Lynne Frederick,) a wide eyed farm girl who is now orphaned and in shock. Meanwhile, James is trying to decipher the ants messages and get Kendra to safety before Hubbs gets them all killed.

This 1974 film was a directorial debut for Saul Bass, who was an Academy Award winner for his animated title sequences. Phase IV is a post-2001 sci-fi flick, unspooling at a leisurely pace, with heavy philosophical overtones and a trippy, ambiguous ending.

At it's heart, it is another man vs. creature movie. But, because it gets into issues of evolution, the possibilities of communicating with other species and the idea that we might not be the smartest animals on Earth, it becomes more. OK, it's not the greatest movie ever, but it handles a lot of interesting ideas in an intelligent way and, if you can appreciate slow, cerebral sci0fi, I think there's a lot here to enjoy.

The stunning thing about it is the miniature photography. I know it sounds silly to say, but the ants really are the best actors in the film. The way Bass manages to capture them on film and get them to do things that actually advance the plot (we see many of the evolutionary steps) is pretty remarkable. Plus, Bass throws in some style from time to time, so if nothing else, this movie is pretty interesting to watch.

Unfortunately, this DVD is about as bare bones as it gets. No extras, not even a trailer. Just the film itself. While I understand this is a pretty obscure film, I'd have loved even a simple "how they did it" featurette, as from a technical standpoint, there's some interesting stuff going on here.

The ants have more detail than the old VHS I had, this transfer is pretty flat and the print used has quite a bunch of specks and is pretty bland to look at. I'd love to see this film in a good HD transfer, to say nothing of a Blu-Ray release.

This is to say nothing of the fact that the original theatrical release was rumored to be longer with more of an ending. Apparently it was cut down a pinch for home video and this disc runs the same length as my old tape. (Though a little longer than the french TV rip my friend Kevin sent me. I think that had a couple of brief cuts for violence.)

Honestly, I wasn't expecting Phase IV to get a DVD release at all, so just having this is better than nothing. And considering I paid the same amount ($10) for an age old ex-rental VHS, I'm not too disappointed. Still, I feel this movie deserves better than what we got. Hopefully, some day we will, but until then, fans of intelligent sci-fi should feel pretty safe picking this up.


Joel Reed Parker said...

You worried me for a sec, I coudln't find it for a decent price online, then I see it's a best buy exclusive...


Tony Reitz said...

I want to borrow this. Can I spin by spin by this week and grab it?