Sometimes there's a place in these pages for jiggling breasts and blood splattered all over the camera lens. Other times there's a place for a thoughtful little science fiction classic like Phase IV. Director Saul Bass, sadly limited to this one full-length film, has fashioned a nice little trippy, artsy gem that only the seventies could have produced. Ostensibly a "nature strikes back" film, Phase IV delves into 2001 territory at times, with it's unusual imagery. Let's take a look at what makes this film so captivating and unique.
Although we're never really given any specifics, a cosmic phenomena occurs which is depicted as an aligning of planets in our galaxy. As we're told by our narrator James Lesko (Michael Murphy), as a result of this a 'biological imbalance' has occurred, whereby ants of different kinds - who would normally be enemies - have begun communicating with each other and forming a hive mind. At least the first ten minutes of the film are taken up by amazing photography of ants doing their thing, lensed by Ken Middleham. Biologist Doctor Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport from No Blade of Grass) has been making notes and generally being ignored, but now the scientific community can sit back no longer. Hubbs and Lesko, a mathematics expert, are put together in a small research facility in the American desert, where a small community has been decimated by the new plague of ants. Once a prosperous little town, 'Paradise City' is now a ghost of it's former self, with one last family clinging on to the hope of remaining there. As Lesko tells us, these ants have united against all their predators - we see them attacking a hapless spider in fast motion - and in this desert area are becoming a true threat. Hubbs and Lesko are placed in a small dome in the middle of the phenomenon. They're stunned to see the huge towers made of dirt that the ants have created, as well as the precise holes in crops resembling crop circles. These towers resemble the alien monolith from 2001 and they're nothing that's been on earth before. Eerie sound effects accompany our view of them, and we're on no certain terms that they're a threat.
The older, more eccentric Hubbs is more impatient with the research and wants to see some 'activity'. He blows up the towers to see what the ants will do. In the meantime the ants attack the last remaining family and drive them to seek refuge in Hubbs and Lesko's dome. Unfortunately for the old man, his wife and farmhand, Hubbs and Lesko are experimenting with 'one hundred percent yellow' a formidable insecticide. The humans seeking help are fatally sprayed with a storm of it before they can enter the compound. Donning protective suits, go outside and investigate. Lesko is appalled at Hubb's indifference at the deaths, and begins to suspect his mind may be going. They find one survivor, a young girl named Kendra (beautiful Lynn Frederick, also from No Blade of Grass) who is their granddaughter and survived the storm of 'yellow' by hiding in a cellar. They take the grieving girl in and in a state of shock, she accepts their hospitality. When the two scientists show her some ants they're studying, she attacks them and wrecks one particular experiment. As Hubbs seals off the room and sprays it, he's bitten by the ants. As the group calms down they begin to explore the patterns of communication from the ants. Lesko uses mathematics in an attempt to create a universal language between them. They discover that the ants have adapted to the insecticide. We see this through an extended sequence whereby one ant after another dies bringing a lump of 'yellow' to the queen, who ingests it and begins laying new yellow eggs which are immune to the poison.
The ants begin their retaliation. Creating new structures with reflective surfaces, they focus the sun on the dome, raising the temperature hugely. Ants enter the dome and cut the power, and most of the computers. The group of humans realise they're the ones who are the subject of a great experiment, not the ants. Lesko manages to send a stream of 'white noise,' a sonic attack on the ants structures which shatters them and kills millions. We are show mournful shots of black ants lining up their yellow dead. Hubbs' ant-bite gets worse and his hand swells up badly. He begins to show more signs of madness, wanting to go and find the queen, to destroy the colonies at their source. He chases around one individual ant, practically wrecking the lab in the process. Lesko says he'll try to contact the government and get a helicopter to get them out, whatever the reluctant Hubbs does. The ants destroy all communications before he can do it, though. Lesko finally receives a mysterious pictorial message from the insects, which seems to depict the dome, and something in it they want. Kendra thinks it's her and leaves, walking off into the desert barefoot, without telling the two men. Hubbs leaves the dome with an insecticide gun, ranting about how he's going to win the battle.
No sooner does Hubbs go a few metres than he falls into a deep hole, a trap set by the ants. Lesko watches his associate swarmed over by high-speed ants and presumably eaten alive, off-screen. Distraught, he takes a canister of blue insecticide and begins spraying everywhere. We hear on the narration that he'd hoped for a peaceful resolution with the ants, but it just wasn't to be. He soon gives up and throws off his protective suit. He goes to the area where they'd located the queen earlier. Throwing the canister into a hole, he jumps in after it. Lesko lands softly on some sand and finds Kendra mysteriously rising from it, and beckoning him closer. He realises it was he and Kendra whom the ants wanted for the final phase, Phase IV. We had already seen Phases I, II and III as the ants became more organised and stronger. What is this mysterious phase and will it spell death for the two humans, or a rebirth into a strange new world? I won't spoil the ending for you, but it's enigmatic and very mysterious. You can draw your own conclusions and I think you'll enjoy pondering Phase IV's new world as it evolves.
Saul Bass and writer Mayo Simon have, with little dialogue, created a unique little masterpiece. Ken Middleham's ant scenes are wonders to behold, we're truly convinced that these creatures have somehow become intelligent beyond their station, and that big changes are afoot for humankind. Bass's composition of scenes are amazing, from Lynn Frederick in closeup looking at a single ant, to her rising from the sand in the ant colony, to the huge alien-like towers rising against the lone human's dome. The scenes of Lesko undergoing his 'transformation' are hallucinatory and totally take us away from any standard 'nature attacks' film.The film's colours are amazing, with the garish blues and yellows of the human's insecticides contrasting with peaceful tones of the sky and surrounding deserts. Silver is everywhere, from the protective suits and the artificial dome, to the banks of equipment and computers surrounding the scientists. The music varies from gentle and pondering to ominous and threatening. Performance-wise, the actors are all committed and take their roles seriously, but this is not really an actor's film, as such. It's visuals and ideas, and excels at what it attempts to do. There's no answers here as to why the events are happening, or where they are all leading, but this film comes from a time when the audience was allowed to think for itself.
If you enjoy your science fiction with a slight dreamy, cerebral edge to it, I can only recommend Phase IV. I can't imagine a remake any time soon, which is probably a good thing. No one could capture the odd, charming qualities of this one with today's film-making priorities. It's also a must-see if you have any fascination for insects, as they're depicted here in the most compelling way I've ever seen.
© Boris Lugosi, 2008.
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