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.