Phase IV (1974)
Directed by: Saul Bass
Starring: Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick
(out of 4)
Phase IV is a neat little movie about super-intelligent ants. Unlike other killer insect, nature-gone-amuck flicks like those from the 50s, the insects aren’t giant monsters, but their intelligence proves more than a match for man. Another deviation from those kinds of movies is that Phase IV concentrates less on special effects and more on beautifully scenic cinematography and a pervading atmosphere of dread and transformation. Although I must say, director Saul Bass and cinematographer Dick Bush achieve something grand with the scenes of ants interacting with each other – impressive, given the small confines of an ant colony. What could have been boring nature footage has been replaced with carefully thought-out sequences of macro photography that gives the ants a sympathetic quality, much more than the small trio of humans pitted against them.
When Phase IV (well, really, Phase I) begins, we are told by game theorist James Lesko (Michael Murphy) that some kind of astronomical event has had an effect on the ant population in the Arizona desert. When we first join Lesko the ants have already attacked. Along with English biologist Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), he surveys the damage to the homes in a now-abandoned desert community caused by the ants (“Just another desert development, which did not develop”, says Dr. Hubbs). In addition, different ant species have apparently stopped fighting one other, other insects that normally feed on ants have disappeared, and, oh yeah – apparently the ants have constructed huge monolithic objects in the desert, Stonehenge-like. The two scientists set up shop in a spherical dome/laboratory to study the insects and attempt to communicate. When a local family is attacked by the ants, a young girl named Kendra (Lynne Frederick) survives and takes up shelter at the lab – in a state of shock, she sees some ants in a lab experiment and smashes it up (“You killed my horse!”). Funny that her concern was first with the animal rather than her poor grandparents, who were accidentally killed when exposed to the yellow ant-killing chemical sprays outside the dome. In contrast, there is a scene where hundreds of dead ants are neatly lined up in rows, in what appears to be some kind of “funeral”. There’s a scene where an ant picks up a particle of poison, finally dies from exposure to it, and then another ant comes by to grab it and continue on. This becomes a process of soldier ants sacrificing their lives so that their queen can absorb the poison and become immune to it. Director Bass has effectively humanized the insect enemy.
Actually less of a horror film and more of a thinking sci-fi, I would compare Phase IV to The Andromeda Strain. It’s not as good as that movie, but still I appreciated the lack of hand-holding (the ending is sure to frustrate some viewers as things are left a bit open-ended) and I liked the realism. There are no major ant attack scenes (perhaps one – a death that is more suggested than shown but no less disturbing); mostly we see sequences where the scientists do things that we would expect scientists to do. You might also make a comparison with Hitchcock’s The Birds, but this film is much more clinical. Lesko works on communicating with the ants through mathematical language only to find that they have already been thinking a few steps ahead of him. The battle of wills between human and insect follows a somewhat believable path – for example, the ants construct giant lens-like towers meant to reflect the sunlight towards the dome, thus heating it up. The scientists respond with sonic bursts to shatter the mounds. Then ants get into the machinery and we really see what a computer bug looks like.
Something else I liked about Phase IV was the general isolation and feelings of skewed reality. The beautiful shots of the Arizona desert with the rising and setting sun, the implications of the massive ant-constructed towers and their bizarre geometrical shapes, the general loneliness communicated by the scenery, and the nice electronic score by Brian Gascoigne make things feel as if we’re on a different planet. (For a few moments I actually thought of Forbidden Planet). I’m not sure it was an accident that the science lab itself looks like a spacecraft. By the movie’s end I had the impression that earth would indeed be a different world, run by a new intelligence. Bass uses his skills as a visual designer to make familiar things unfamiliar (the scenes of humans in chemical suits standing in the desert, blasting insect spray take on a surreal and dreamlike quality). Phase IV may not be for all tastes, as some may find it slow going and the ending hard to assimilate but I personally found it engaging and intellectually ambitious. Catch it if you are in the mood for something different – it’s finally available on DVD.