There have been killer ant movies before – Them! (1954), The Naked Jungle (1954), and Empire of the Ants (1977) come to mind – but Phase IV, released in 1974, may be the first and only killer ant art film. With its abstract, almost experimental approach to narrative and character development, it’s a much closer cousin to something like…say, Last Year at Marienbad (1961) than Them! While it was marketed as a science fiction film and clearly belongs in that genre, the film was both puzzling and disappointing to a certain sector of that audience that expected a killer ant movie to deliver thrills, chills and a satisfying ending. Yet, once you accept the fact that Phase IV is not a conventional sci-fi film and will not conform to the genre conventions that you expect, you may find it absolutely chilling and brilliant.
Designed and directed by Saul Bass, one of the most innovative and influential graphic designers of the 20th century, Phase IV remains Bass’s only feature film, even though he worked on more than fifty of them. His striking title sequence designs for movies starting with Carmen Jones (1954) and followed by The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Vertigo (1958), Exodus (1960), and 1962’s Walk on the Wild Side (famous for its prowling black cat) still seem incredibly fresh and modern in their sleek, deceptively simple execution which captures the absolute essence of the film in question.
Like his masterful title sequences for other films, Phase IV has a stunning one and we would expect no less. The remarkable close-up and detailed ant footage may remind you of the 1971 documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle and that’s because Ken Middleham was the insect cinematographer on both films. Like The Hellstrom Chronicle, Phase IV takes that documentary’s premise – that insects will win the battle for global dominance, not mankind – and dramatizes it in a way that seems completely plausible at times.
After an opening sequence (complete with voice over narration) that demonstrates the complexity and sophistication of an insect species many regard as an insignificant pest, we learn that some disturbance in deep space has attracted the attention and concern of scientists everywhere. Shortly thereafter, a British biologist, Dr. Hobbs (Nigel Davenport), begins to notice strange behavior in the ant world, particularly in the way they stop attacking rival colonies. Instead, the ants unite to overcome and destroy their natural predators.
In a desolate section of the American Southwest where there is a great deal of ant activity, Hobbs sets up shop to study the ants in a fortress-like, sphere-shaped laboratory and is joined by James Lesko (Michael Murphy), his assistant, who is skilled in mathematics and cryptology. Evacuation orders are issued to the few residents in the area and testing begins with Hobbs decimating seven ant-created towers which, to my eye, look like natural architectural wonders and something Antonio Gaudi would have appreciated.
The reaction to this is swift and the ants invade a nearby farm, attacking a family that refused to leave. The four members manage to escape in a truck but soon find themselves stranded near the scientists’ compound. As they stagger toward the laboratory, fighting off ants, they are suddenly enveloped in a shower of chemical poison coming from the facility’s defensive sprayers. The only survivor is a teenage girl named Kendra (Lynne Frederick) who managed to take shelter in a storage cellar.
Hobbs, who is clearly irritated at this new development, and James, have no choice but to take her in until they can arrange for her transfer out of there in a helicopter air lift. Meanwhile, Hobbs increases the intensity of his tests which result in more ant deaths, but the little buggers prove to be not only incredibly resilient but possibly superior in intellect to the scientists. It also becomes increasingly apparent that the besieged trio are the real experiment and the film’s resolution, mirroring the cosmic mysticism of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) suggests a new world order….one that might not include homo sapiens.
When Phase IV opened theatrically, the reception was more negative than positive in terms of both reviews and ticket sales. The Variety reviewer picked it apart: “This one didn’t get the bugs worked out before release….the terror is supposedly in the notion that ants are suddenly getting smarter and better organized, ready to take on all comers…One problem with a pic of this type is that it’s hard to understand the ants just by watching them swarm over each other in the thousands…moreover, you can’t tell what the humans are doing either. Despite endless conversation and dial twirling, Davenport and Murphy never focus the story in any dramatic direction. Joining them as an ant attack refugee, Lynne Frederick only adds to the confusion…Cinematically, the ants are never very menacing. Pic opens with an interminable segment inside an anthill. But photography is poor quality, looking like outtakes rejected by National Geographic. Boring exposition tells how menacing the ants will be if they ever get really organized for evil, but that’s the high point for expectations. During the rest of the film they mainly show up in lab one by one.” Sometimes you have to wonder if the reviewer saw the same film you did!
Somewhat more favorable and representative of the majority opinion are these excerpts from a review by A.H. Weiler of The New York Times: “…Saul Bass…has fashioned a pictorially persuasive adventure. His ants – in close-up and otherwise – make their awesome potential terrifyingly real, even if his principals – Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy, as the scientists, and Lynne Frederick, as the frightened young woman – are merely one-dimensional figures registering surface emotions. It’s ungallant to reveal the denouement but, like a good deal of “Phase IV”, it’s beclouded by enigmas. For all of its good, scientific and human intentions, “Phase IV” cries for a Phase V of fuller explanations.”
Most criticisms of the film seemed to demand an explanation for the behavior of the ants and the humans but the answers – at least to me – are there in Bass’s visual design. In scene after scene we see the beautifully regimented and purposeful behavior of the ants juxtaposed against the individualistic and often ineffectual actions of the humans. It’s as if the film were directed by the ants – it observes everything at a dispassionate distance. The synchronized unity of the ants, performing as a unit, sacrificing themselves if necessary, is a model of communication perfection.
The human trio, on the other hand, is dysfunctional in their attempts to communicate with each other in their hermetically sealed sphere. Ego, emotion, a human’s sense of self – all of these things become superfluous in the struggle for species survival depicted in Phase IV and this is where the film ties in thematically with other sci-fi touchstones like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Thing from Another World (1951). Maybe it’s better to be an ant or an intelligent carrot. There is no such thing as self-pity or introspection in this new society where you’re just one replaceable component in a massive organization working together in lockstep synchronicity. I think the most chilling aspect of Phase IV is the fact that ant society compared to human society is so much more advanced in terms of communication – and the visual representation of this is so seductively rendered – that it becomes a subversive plea for totalitarianism.
I do think Bass wanted to defy expected sci-fi conventions and resist making anyone in the human trio heroic or even someone an audience could identify with easily. The fact that he cast relatively unknown actors who were unrecognizable except perhaps to movie buffs seems to support this. Nigel Davenport is, on the surface, like a lot of scientists in science fiction films. He’s highly intelligent, impersonal, egotistical and incorrigibly curious. But unlike the scientist in…say, The Thing From Another World…he is more interested in proving his superiority to the ants than communicating with them. Human emotions such as compassion or sadness seem alien to him. Yet, even the ants honor their dead in Phase IV, arranging their fallen bodies meticulously in rows, whereas Hobbs feels no remorse for the people who died trying to seek shelter in his station.
By default, James (Murphy) becomes the only character to engage our sympathies to some degree and even then he’s often hard to read. Sharing an obsessive interest in the ants with Hobbs, he at least has a quirky sense of humor and a stronger sense of self-preservation. And despite expectations of a romantic relationship developing between James and Kendra (Frederick), this too is avoided in a further departure from the usual sci-fi movie norm. Many detractors of the film, in fact, feel that Kendra barely registers as a person but that’s because she spends most of the film in a state of shock, which is quite understandable after witnessing the death of her family and beloved horse. If James and Kendra do end up as a couple in the final moments of Phase IV, it’s because it is part of the ants’ grand design, not a matter of romantic love or sexual attraction.
As a first time feature film director (he had previously directed documentary shorts), Bass did not have the power to insist on the final cut of Phase IV and there are reports of changes made to the film by Paramount after his departure. According to John Brosnan in Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction, “Bass originally filmed a spectacular, surreal montage lasting four minutes, showing what life would be like on the ‘new’ Earth, but this was cut by the distributor.” This is confirmed in a posting by Bruce Holecheck on the DVD Savant web site: “The trailer to Phase IV can be found on Synapse Films’ 42nd Street Forever Volume 3: Exploitation Explosion and it does indeed contain some snippets of the more tripped-out climax that unfortunately didn’t make it into the release version. Additional glimpses include a man and a woman merging into one new, faceless being, and some additional psychedelic photography and effects.”
Bass also had no control over the marketing campaign for Phase IV and that included the design of the film poster. One version of it shows a bloodied hand with an ant emerging from a hole in the palm – a homage to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), which appears in the film – and the taglines, “The Day the Earth Was Turned Into a Cemetery. Ravenous Invaders Controlled by a Terror Out In Space…Commanded to Annihilate The World,” which is a total misrepresentation of the film. Even an international version of the film poster indicates that space aliens are behind the catastrophic incidents.
It’s no wonder Phase IV was positioned for failure by Paramount which took the horror exploitation approach and ended up misleading sci-fi fans and probably alienating more open-minded filmgoers and art cinema audiences. Bass never made another feature film and it’s our loss.
Some additional trivia: The movie was filmed on location in both Arizona and Kenya and at Pinewood Studios near London, England. Screenwriter Mayo Simon also wrote the screenplays for Marooned (1969) and Futureworld (1976) and was a writer on the TV series, Man from Atlantis (1977-78). The unique music score by Brian Gascoigne includes contributions from David Vorhaus (the electronic sounds) and Stomu Yamashta, who composed the montage music. In addition, the film won the Special Jury Award at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival in France and the Grand Prix at the Trieste International Festival of Science Fiction Films in Italy.
Phase IV eventually surfaced on DVD in July 2008 from Legend Films in an edition with no extra features. The film was re-issued on DVD and Blu-ray in October 2015 by Olive Films, also without any supplementary material. Finally, 101 Films in the U.K. offered a limited Blu-ray release in 2020 of the film with a host of extra features. Among them was the original Saul Bass ending, a commentary by film historians Allan Bryce and Richard Holliss, numerous short films by Bass including The Searching Eye (1964), Why Man Creates (1968), Bass on Titles (1977) and other extras. But be aware that this is a PAL disc and you must have an all-region Blu-ray player to view it.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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