Director: Saul Bass
Writer: Mayo Simon
Producer: Paul B. Radin
Composer: Brian Gascoigne
Production Companies: An Alced production
Principal Cast: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, Alan Gifford, Robert Henderson, Helen Horton
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Ants have long been a popular antagonist in genre movies - giant ones chasing Joan Collins in Empire of the Ants (1977), normal sized ones terrorising hotel workers in It Happened at Lakewood Manor (1977) and whole armies of them giving Charlton Heston cause for concern in the classic The Naked Jungle (1954) among others. One of the more unusual and intelligent was Saul Bass's Phase IV which tried to do for ants what 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) did for aliens.
Essentially a three-hander (a few other characters crop up to act as ant fodder), it's set in the atmospheric spaces of the Arizona desert where the ants, apparently acting under the influence of a mysterious cosmic event, are evolving rapidly. Studying their strange new behaviour is intense and obsessed British scientist Ernest D. Hobbs (Nigel Davenport) and his young mathematician assistant Lesko (Michael Murphy). As the ants continue to behave in unpredictable and worrying ways, the pair are joined by a catatonic girl, Kendra, whose family has apparently been wiped out by the insects. But what are they really up to? And what are their plans for the humans that have been observing them?
Phase IV is a strange, deeply flawed but still fascinating ecological science fiction movie with a central premise that, at times, threatens to overwhelm the big ideas at work in the fiercely intelligent script. But while the script occasionally falters and some of the performances are a bit creaky, the film looks stunning throughout. And we'd expect nothing less from Bass, long-time creator of some of the most memorable title sequences in cinema history, here making his one and only feature length film as director. Bass' visual style is impeccable and he makes eerie use of the otherworldly environs of the desert valley and the farm nearby.
He also does sterling work with the slow-burn script, wringing suspense not from action and mayhem but from the dogged scientific research undertaken by the two male leads. The way their cold logic gradually gives way to desperation, fear and finally a sort of uncomprehending acceptance is quite chilling and beautifully done.
Sadly, Bass does tend to fall in love too easily with the admittedly excellent micro-photography of Ken Middleham and leaves the main thread of the story for lengthy passages of ants scurrying around in the peculiar, monolithic structures they've been building. The creatures seem so much more disturbing when we just see their effects of their presence, as in the odd 'crop circle' they etch into a nearby field, their silent, implacable destruction of a farm by sheer weight of numbers or the circle of reflective towers they build around the research base in order to heat up the installation and drive the humans out.
The most compelling aspect of Mayo Simon's script is the way it very slows turns the tables on the human protagonists - at the start of the film, they're at the very top of the food chain, part of the species that has most successfully adapted to its environment and claimed mastery of its world. Ranged against them are some of the smallest and least significant creatures on the planet. As the film progresses, the humans' grip on the top rung of power loosens until eventually all three of the main characters are forced to concede that they've just been superseded as planet Earth's ruling species. It's chillingly done, with Davenport in particularly good form as the arrogant and confident Hobbs, wantonly destroying the ants' enigmatic constructions (tantamount to destroying their art), coldly experimenting on his six-legged antagonists and ultimately losing all traces of his humanity after being bitten by a rogue ant.
The single most chilling moment in the film - and one of the most startling revelations of any 70s science fiction film - comes when Lesko manages to communicate with the ants and receives in response to his message what appears to be an intelligence test. The ants, it seems, are experimenting on us and not the other way around...
Sadly, despite all their best efforts, Bass, Simon and the cast were undermined at the last minute by studio interference which rendered the transcendent, 2001-like climax virtually unintelligible. What should have been the big, emotional, intellectually challenging finale is now reduced to a beautiful montage of surreal images that ultimately mean nothing. By the time the credits roll (and this, incidentally, is the first time we see the title appear as the ants' experiment enters Phase IV) we're none the wiser as to the fate of Lesko and Kendra who have been altered somehow by the ants - but how and for what purpose.
The muddled ending and occasional longeurs prevent Phase IV from being a fully fledged classic, but is still a remarkable film. It's at its best when suggesting that something terrifyingly alien has been living beneath our feet all these millennia and that now it's about to make its move against us. An interesting, beautiful and thought-provoking failure.