Phase IV

This year's film festival featured a lot of ants. Yes, ants. Not giant ants, which I must admit was my first thought, but a bunch of regular-sized ants of different species all working together for some mysterious purpose. They did look like giants, though, as there were many extreme close-ups of said ants projected up onto a large screen, and I felt rather small myself at times.

There were probably too many of those extreme close-ups, really, as the first such montage seemed to go on for an awfully long time. This may help explain why one of the people down the row later laughed hysterically for no apparent reason on several occasions. The movie started at 11:30 in the morning, but I suppose it's still possible that alcohol may also have been a factor. Admittedly, there were some doubtful plot points and unintentionally amusing dialogue, and I did smile wryly more than once, but with only one or two exceptions she was the only one who laughed and I could never quite figure out what was setting her off.

Part of the problem is that the studio didn't really know how to advertise the movie. Sadly, studios are still having that problem even today. The issue back then was that this was an early example of an ecological-awareness sort of movie, and they were too new. So they tried to sell it more as a horror movie about ants viciously attacking people. And they do, but it doesn't ever really seem like a horror movie. Well, except for the part where people start running around outside without shoes on.

The only death that can be completely attributed to the ants is that of a horse, though to be fair, they were also shown attacking four people with apparently murderous intent. Technically, however, the three of the four who died were really killed by something else, which I shall explain below.

There's a scientist studying the recent odd ant behavior, you see, Dr. Ernest Hubbs, played by Nigel Davenport, who delivered most of the unintentionally funny lines. That wasn't entirely the actor's fault, I don't think -- he just got stuck with most of the explanatory stuff, and often needed to sound like a conspiracy theorist. Michael Murphy (X-Men: The Last Stand), who played Hubbs' assistant, James Lesko, was there for the screening and had a question and answer session afterwards. He also apologized for his bad acting, though again, I think part of that was out of his control. The director, Saul Bass, was usually a graphic artist and wanted the entire movie to be really stylized, which I'm sure makes it harder to act convincingly.

Anyway, the two scientists set up a nice little dome in the desert where the ants are acting up the most, and when they don't get any results after a few weeks, Dr. Hubbs blows up a bunch of sand towers that the ants apparently built and they get angry. The four people they attack didn't have anything to do with wrecking the towers, but Dr. Hubbs did visit them beforehand so maybe they got confused. Anyway, while the foursome is fleeing, they end up near the dome and, not realizing there are people there, Hubbs sprays out a bunch of insecticide, which isn't designed to kill people, but will do in a pinch.

One survives by hiding in a sort of storm cellar, though (Lynne Frederick as Kendra), and they take her into the dome. By the end, the movie has dissolved into the sort of weirdness that only the early seventies can create. The final montage (we saw a newly restored version that never hit the theatres) features such puzzling images as James jumping over the setting sun and he and Kendra running up endless flights of stairs that might have been designed by Escher. I mean, I think I know what happened, generally, but only because the voice-over gave some better clues.

It isn't for everyone, obviously, but if you're at all interesting in the films of the period, or the art of the era in general, it's worth watching. I'm sure the slightly hysterical woman would disagree, but while the computers and such do look terribly out of date, the effects in general aren't nearly as bad as you might expect, and these days we get the idea of an environmental cautionary tale, even if we don't always take them to heart. So I'll give it a solid three out of five. Just don't approach it like a horror movie -- or worse, a comedy -- and you'll be fine.

Kendra and an ant watch each other warily. I've got my eye on you...


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