Phase IV (1974)

A cosmic event causes ants in the Arizona desert to become hyper-intelligent, leading to two scientists, Hubbs and Lesko, set up a research base to observe and study the ants. Unfortunately for them, the ants are full of bloodlust and desire to conquer the living world.

There are clear parallels in Phase IV to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but this film lacks the vision and quality of Kubrick’s masterpiece. The film is divided into two realms – of the humans above ground and of the ants below. It is the filming of the ants that impresses here. Cinematographer Dick Bush does masterful work with the close-ups of the ants, as we see them navigate their tunnels and conspire with each other.

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The scientists Hubbs and Lesko stand before the monolithic ant columns.

There is one particularly memorable scene, where the ants carry out funeral rites on their dead. The fallen ants are lined up in rows, in what can only be a military cemetery, the surviving ants mourn on the sides, over a slow guitar riff and organ soundtrack. The ants, although indistinguishable from one another, have real personality.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film falls flat in its script and acting. However, the finale enjoyably subverted my expectations, just not enough to pick up what had come before.

Welcome to Leith (2015)

Welcome to Leith offers a clear account of the trials and tribulations of one small, remote town in North Dakota, USA, as their community is threatened by the presence of white supremacist Nazis.

The infamous Nazi Craig Cobb, well known to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, selected Leith to become a haven for like minded racists. By inviting other white supremacists to Leith he intended to take over the town through its own council and democratic system.

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Cobb and fellow Nazis intimidating the residents of Leith.

The documentary tracks the conflict and rising tensions between Cobb and his allies, and the towns people, showing footage from large demonstrations to smaller confrontations. Here the film is at its best, collecting footage and photos from the residents present. However, it offers little depth in its insight into the workings of Cobbs mind, or the community with which he is affiliated. Instead we are presented purely with events, with no comment or judgement from the film makers. Given the subject matter, I can’t help but be frustrated by this.

While this was an interesting watch, it is nothing remarkable. The racist thugs shown are beyond comprehension, but ultimately are small timers in the face of the systematic racism that plagues America today.

First Man (2018)

There is a joke about a conspiracy theory on the moon landing. Those in tin-foil hats claim NASA asked Stanley Kubrick, having just filmed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to produce a fake landing to one-up the Soviets. The joke is that being a renowned perfectionist Kubrick would insist on filming it on the moon itself, thus rendering the faked landing redundant. Such a task is now obsolete as director Damien Chazelle has given us a truly authentic production of the moon landing, more so than any other, in his latest film First Man.

First Man is a radical departure from his previous two feature films Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), both centred around the throes of artistic ambition. However, there is continuity with First Man and its predecessors. Where previously Miles Teller plays an incessantly tenacious jazz drummer, sought on gaining the approval of his uncompromising mentor and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz pianist and actress respectively, striving to fulfil their dreams, Chazelle presents Neil Armstrong played by a stoic Ryan Gosling as a man driven, resolute in his mission to reach the moon. 

Throughout, the film navigates the dynamics of a family whose father and husband is to be sent into space to his possible death. Clare Foy gives a convincing performance as Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife and the mother to their two sons. She struggles with the demands of raising her children while dealing with the emotional toll of her husband’s job. We see Neil haunted by the death of his daughter, the effects of which are seemingly absent in Janet’s narrative, which is disappointing as her role is ultimately reduced to ‘Neil’s aggrieved wife’. The depths of Armstrong’s grief are captured brilliantly by cinematographer Linus Sandgreen using 16mm film for the close-up shots, reflecting shadows on the moon in Gosling’s face often shot half covered in darkness. Gosling carries Armstrong’s despair to the ethereal surface of the moon where Sandgreen switches to an IMAX camera, allowing the heightened detail and clarity in the colour and light to be brought forward. Armstrong’s grief is brought into sharp focus with the bleak moonscape spanning the screen, void of life and score, where he starts to let go of the death of his daughter, leaving a memento of her behind.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong

Although the majority of the film is centred on the events on Earth, Chazelle is best in space; the shaky camera work on Earth, although cleverly mimicking the discord in the Armstrong family, grows tiresome. Only once Gosling is hurtling through space does Chazelle reveal the full extent of his directing talent. It is the first mission; Gemini 8, that stands out. Here Armstrong and co-pilot David Scott, played by Christopher Abbott are launched into space and then tasked with locating and docking with a second vessel. On their ascent Chazelle puts us squarely in the action along with the pilots in the cockpit, avoiding any shots of the spacecraft from the outside. The result is a tumultuous cacophony of noise, the camera shaking violently as the astronauts are rocketed through the atmosphere into space. And then they break through, into an elevated state of tranquillity after the violence of their ascent. For First Man Chazelle has paired again with composer Justin Hurwitz (whose entire filmography is made up with collaborations with Chazelle and with two Academy Awards after three films has established himself as one of the standout film composers of his generation ), and once again the result is spectacular. For the Gemini 8 mission, Hurwitz gives us a sublime waltz (Docking Waltz) as Armstrong and Scott drift through space just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, the curve of which is gracefully reflected in Armstrong’s helmet. 

First Man is an excellent portrayal of a lost man, buried by grief, seeking remove from his anguish in the perilous missions which have claimed so many of his friends’ lives. Ultimately, however, it is just another biopic centred around a tortured man and although it is beautifully crafted and technically sound, unlike the Gemini and Apollo space missions it makes no new ground in the already bloated genre.