Phase IV: 99 Science Fiction Films You Must See

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As with many films on this list, I first discovered this movie while watching TV late at night. I suppose it will become a running theme in this segment, insomnia, and UHF leading to some pretty strange post-midnight viewings. And perhaps it is the delirium of half-sleep that makes a film about intelligent ants in the desert seem so appealing. Whatever the reason Phase IV has stuck in my memory. It is without a doubt a beautiful film – creepy and can make your skin crawl, yes – but beautiful all the same.

Phase IV was released in 1974 and was directed by Saul Bass. It is the only feature-length film he directed, which is a shame. Bass was a graphic designer and is known for doing creative and innovative title sequences. Some examples are the animated paper cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm for The Man with the Golden Arm, the credits racing up and down a shot of a skyscraper in North by Northwest, and the disjointed text that races together and apart in Psycho. And many others. Bass’ style was abstract and surreal, linear and angled. He brings that style to this film. Almost every shot is lovingly framed and composed like a painter would lay out a canvas. And that is what makes this unique and different.

Also, as a bit of trivia, this is the first film to depict a crop circle. And the crop circle craze that, er um, cropped up in the years following its release is credited to this film. So, Saul Bass is an innovative filmmaker and crop circle starter. Not exactly a reason to see the film but still cool.

What It’s About

After an unknown cosmic event ants undergo rapid evolution. Two scientists, James Lesko (Michael Murphy) and Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) are sent to the desert of Arizona to investigate geometrically perfect towers the ants have built. Except for one holdout family, the entire population in the area flees the increasingly aggressive ants. The two scientists set up a computerized lab in a sealed geodesic dome (it’s the 70s, and everyone had a geodesic dome) to investigate further but they and the remaining family soon find themselves at war with the ants.

After the family’s farm is overrun with ants they escape to the science lab but before they get there they are sprayed with a lethal insecticide and all killed except for the daughter Kendra (Lynne Frederick) who hides in a cellar. She is taken into the dome and some ants are captured for study.

Inside the dome, Lesko thinks he can communicate with the ants using mathematic messages and geometric shapes. Hubbs on the other hand believes he can wipe out the ants by destroying the central hive. When Kendra revives and lashes out against the captive ants smashing the holding container causing them to escape and Hubbs is bitten.

Overnight the ants build huge structures outside the dome that reflect the heat of the desert toward the lab while simultaneously destroying the air-conditioning and knocking out most electronics. In the sweltering dome, Kendra feels responsible and leaves to give herself to the ants in hopes they will let the others go. At the same time, a now delirious Hubbs sets off to kill the ants but is easily trapped and killed himself.

Running out of options Lesko decides to fulfill Hubbs’s plan and he too sets off for the central hive. When he arrives he is surprised to see Kendra and soon realizes that instead of killing them the ants have a plan for the human race but it is unknown what that plan is. In the voice-over, Lesko states that he is awaiting instruction.

Phase IV (1974)

Saul Bass
“We knew then, that we were being changed…and made part of their world. We didn’t know for what purpose…but we knew, we would be told…”
– James Lesko

Why You Must See It

It is a gorgeous, surreal film. ‘Haunting’ is the word I keep wanting to use but it just doesn’t do justice to the look of the movie. Saul Bass has a completely unique style and his composition and symbolism and use of line and shape are astounding. The film mesmerizes. As for the storyline, I find it fascinating. And the ‘flaw’ of the film I mention below, that the action is stiff, I actually think was intentional. In the same way, Kubrick had his actors intentionally bland in 2001, so too I think Bass is intentionally making the human characters wooden and unlikeable. They are in the end the villains of the film. Humans are incompetent aggressors wanting to destroy while the ants build. It is a not-so-subtle statement on human behavior and something that many authors and filmmakers would pick up on in years to come.

Phase IV is a very unique film made by a very unique filmmaker who, sadly, never made another film. It is eerily beautiful and should be seen as a surreal work of art. Salvador Dali with ants.

When originally released the film’s ending was changed. Bass’ original ending would have been a surreal collage of images depicting the ant-controlled world and the humans as slaves. The studio apparently felt that it was just a bit over the top and cut it, against Bass’ protests, to just a fragment of what was intended. Several years ago that original ending was found and restored and some prints now have it. I recommend watching it as it gives a truer look at the director’s vision for the film, not to mention it’s very cool. I posted it below.

Are There Flaws?

Well, it’s not the cheeriest movie in the world. It’s actually a quite bleak film and is not for everyone. It is a very low budget and the cracks do show. Bass does wonders with visuals and can compose a shot masterfully, but the main criticism of the film is that he could not or wasn’t interested in getting good performances from the cast. And the actors do seem stiff, and unemotional – whether this was intentional or not it can be off-putting. And at times the pacing is glacially slow with long loving shots of ants being ants. So if you’re not into that sort of thing it could become tedious.

Final Thoughts

I saw Phase IV originally on a 16″ TV late at night when I was about 14 or 15 years old. It was pan-and-scan and the broadcast channel didn’t have the best reception. Still, I found it amazing. I was captivated, spellbound. I remember thinking how weird it was. And I couldn’t take my eyes off it, there was a grotesque appeal to it. Today I watched this on a 42″ screen, letter-boxed from a digital copy, and was again blown away.  I can only imagine what this would have looked like on a cinema screen. There are detractors, of course, those who feel that it’s weird just for the sake of being weird. And fair enough I can see where people would feel that way. As I said this is not for everyone. But if you want to see a truly strange and thoroughly unique movie give Phase IV a watch.

Original Theatrical Trailer

Here’s that “Lost” ending:

originally published on April 11, 2015

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