Cine-File’s Kian Bergstrom reviews “Phase IV” screening at Doc Films

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In an amazing essay published in October 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked what it is like to be a bat. He proposed that there must be subjective characters to our individual consciousnesses, the ‘what it is like’ of different forms of life, and those aspects would necessarily be irreducible to mere biological or chemical functionality. In his example, no matter how detailed our understanding of echolocation, eyes that are receptive to different wavelengths and amplitudes of light than ours, and the life-cycle of bats get, no matter how much we know about bat physiology and behavior, we will never know what it is like to be at bat. We will never be able to get closer than imagining what it would like to be ourselves going through a bat’s life. The bat, close as it is to us biologically, is a fundamentally alien being. In a remarkable coincidence, only one month before Nagel’s essay was first published, a film meditating on the same ideas was released, PHASE IV. Saul Bass’ sole feature film, this thought experiment in disguise as a science-fiction horror film begins with an outlandish hypothetical: what would happen if a colony of ants were to become our intellectual superiors? From there, it sets up a dramatic pretext—an entomologist and a mathematician set up a geodesic science laboratory in Arizona (really Kenya) in order to observe and experiment upon a group of ants that has been behaving very strangely. Rapidly, the humans find themselves under siege by the insects with their only hope of survival being finding a way somehow to communicate with them. Bass stages the scenes inside the bunker in increasingly mechanistic, dehumanizing ways—people in thrall to wall after wall of computer equipment, humans turned into tools for operating harmonic analyzers and vector plotters—while inside the ant nest, vibrant, emotionally-rich lives dwell in incredibly complex architectures and social organizations that are as mysterious as they are intricate. Shot in breathtaking microcinematography by Ken Middleham, the ants engage in ritual, self-sacrifice, mourning of their dead, and plotting their revenge in recognizable but wholly alien manners. Just as the built, human environment above ground is made mechanistic, a place of process and procedure, the natural world, both above and below ground, is made impossible, extra-terrestrial, permanently strange. Fields of color whip across the frame, deep yellows and greens and browns. The ground falls away into chthonic horrors of design and danger. Human bodies are made into hollow, ant-infested abominations. All this is in the service of a project in parallel to Nagel’s own: can the alien be made human and the human be made alien?  We may never be able to make the jump to feeling as a bat feels, but, PHASE IV suggests, a life form even further removed from our capacities may be far more approachable. Late in the film, one of the scientists reads a message sent to them by the ants and realizes that they, the humans, are the ones being experimented upon and that the ants have been the actual scientists all along. This rare 35mm screening will be accompanied a DCP of the movie’s original ending, an elaborate montage of alien intelligence, that was cut by the distributer and only recently rediscovered.

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