There was a time when any science fiction film that wanted to be taken seriously found itself helplessly caught up in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey – SF wasn’t SF unless it was cerebral, austere, and concluded on a note of either pessimism or wilful obscurity. This tendency is visible in movies from the late 60s until about a decade later – even the coming of George Lucas’ stellar conflict franchise didn’t quite kill it off, with Disney’s 1979 entry to the robots-and-ray-guns subgenre, The Black Hole, concluding with a bafflingly surreal sequence.
Even so, very few of these movies are quite as out there as Phase IV, a 1974 film directed by Saul Bass. Bass is best remembered as a legendary graphic designer and creator of some of the most memorable credit sequences in cinema history, and this was his only feature film: it’s clear throughout that as a director his focus is overwhelmingly on the visual element of the movie.
This is an early example of a film which dispenses with a conventional title sequence entirely (somewhat ironic, given who the director is), simply opening with the caption ‘Phase I’. Ten full minutes elapse before we actually see a human being, with the story being told via montages and voice-over. Some kind of cosmic event has occurred (the film is unspecific about what it actually is), but its key terrestrial consequence goes unnoticed by almost everyone: across the world, different species of ants, normally in competition with each other, cease their hostilities and begin to work together. But to what end? Strange geometrical structures, constructed by the ants, appear in the desert of Arizona, along with crop circles (the film predates the modern crop phenomenon and may in fact, it’s been suggested) have been one of its inspirations).
Entomologist Dr Hubbs (Nigel Davenport, best known to a generation of British viewers as fruity-voiced tycoon Edward Frere in Howard’s Way) cottons on to what the ants are up to and persuades the powers that be to fund an investigation into what exactly is going on. A lab is set up in a geodesic dome out in the desert (this is the kind of SF movie lab where the equipment includes grenade launchers, but, you know, go with it) and Hubbs sets about annoying the ants in the hope of learning what has happened to them, and ideally teaching them not to get uppity with the human race. Hubbs’ assistant, mathematician Lesko (Michael Murphy), is more cautious and inclined to take a moderate approach, but soon enough the scientists are besieged by hostile ants, along with a young local woman (Lynne Frederick) whose farm was destroyed by the formic hordes. Can Lesko find a way of communicating with the ants, whose collective intelligence is no longer in doubt, or is this just the first stage in a battle that will decide the fate of the world?
Fairly heavy stuff, I think you’ll agree. The film would probably agree, too, considering the intense and very serious way the story is handled – there are no moments of lightness or humour and the actors are all playing it absolutely dead straight. The result is quite a bleak and austere film, rather cold in tone despite the desert setting.
This isn’t the man-vs-killer-ant movie you might be expecting – I vaguely recall it turning up on TV in a double-bill with Them! at some point in my youth – and the striking central image of the movie’s poster, that of an ant gnawing its way out of the centre of a human palm, occurs relatively early on, and not quite as a moment of full-on horror, either. There’s less death-struggle and more philosophical and mathematical discussion as the two scientists discuss what’s going on in fairly abstract terms.
Even so, the most memorable parts of the film don’t concern the human characters but the ants themselves. There are numerous weird, long sequences of ants rattling around in the nests, doing significant but obscure things, clambering around inside human machinery, and so on. It’s a masterclass in editing skill, I suppose – the way the footage of the ants is assembled manages to suggest intention and a vague sense of what is supposed to be happening – but also betrays Bass’s fascination with playing with images and storytelling on a purely visual level. There is, obviously, a lot of miniature photography of ants in this film; there is also time-lapse photography, slow-motion filming, and various other optical effects too.
Many of these are accompanied by an expository voice-over from Murphy, and I wonder if this was something the studio insisted on as the movie started to take shape – the voice-over adds to the impression that this is a rather odd B-movie, but it does stop the film from becoming completely oblique and wilfully enigmatic. As it is, much is left for the viewer to decide – are the ants being actively controlled by some cosmic force to reshape the nature of life on Earth? Or has some random influence caused the ant hive-mind to experience a form of uplift, and it’s the ant superbrain itself which is responsible for everything that happens?
It’s all left very unclear – not least because the studio cut about five minutes from Bass’s preferred climax, leaving it a very brisk 84 minutes in total. If the extant film is off the wall, then the original would have been downright freaky – a reconstruction of the original ending exists on the internet, apparently depicting what the world will be like after Phase IV is completed, and the bizarre impressionistic symbiosis of human and ant that is shown in it is not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen.
Despite all the fascinating and unique things about Phase IV, however, this is still one for the ‘novel but deeply flawed’ category. The B-movie premise and characterisations don’t help the film when it comes to achieving the level of rarefied sophistication it’s clearly aiming for, while the visual storytelling, while innovative and memorable, is just a bit too slow and abstract for the film to work as a thriller or conventional drama. The film’s visual distinctiveness and general air of weirdness mean it is worth watching, if you like abstract SF movies or maybe even art movies generally, but as a conventional piece of movie entertainment this is basically a tough and probably not especially rewarding watch.