Phase IV is an underrated, very weird film – the only dramatic film directed by Saul Bass, who is best known as designing the movie posters and opening credits sequences for the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
The premise is very basic, and is on paper fairly simple. Following the bombardment of Earth by cosmic radiation, ants in the American Southwest have started becoming more organized and intelligent, and have been attacking potential sources of harm, including predators and humans.
Two scientists have come in a pre-fabricated habitat to investigate, Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) an entomologist, and James R. Lesko (Michael Murphy), a cryptologist. Their objective is to study the change that the ants have undergone, set up a line of communication if possible, and if they cannot be persuaded to leave humanity alone, to determine how to destroy them. The two scientists are joined by a civilian who has escaped the ants attacks, Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick)
From here, the story goes into classic “base under siege” science fiction territory, as you’ve probably encountered in Thing from Another World or numerous episodes of Doctor Who (particularly under the 2nd Doctor’s tenure). The humans attempt to fend off the attacks of the ants, while trying to either communicate with them (Lesko’s plan) or destroy them (Hubbs’ plan). Being that this is a science fiction film from the 1970s, the script has been flipped from the 1950s version of this premise – with the person trying to communicate being in the right, while the person seeking to destroy the ants is in the wrong.
What makes this film work is the insanely impressive photography of the ants. We have incredibly close 35mm shots of the ants in this film. Even more impressive, the ants are directed bizarrely well, getting the insects to act in a manner that is recognizable as being very un-ant like, including laying their corpses out in state, dragging a praying mantis off a perch, and so on. It is an utterly abysmal crime that this film never got a director’s commentary prior to Saul Bass’ passing. Considering that Laserdiscs were a thing in the early 90s, it’s entirely possible that this could have happened.
As it stands, Phase IV is a visual masterwork that I think has been greatly under-appreciated. It aspires to be a cerebral film on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while it does not quite achieve that goal, it’s still visually extraordinary.
Currently, as things stand, the film is only available in a very bare-bones DVD and Blu-Ray release, which lacks any sort of bonus features, nor the film’s originally shot ending, which was cut from the theatrical release, but was re-discovered not long ago, and was recently screened with the film, in its original context, by Alamo Drafthouse.
I do recommend seeing this film at least once – it’s a very interestingly shot film, and it’s flaws are overcome by Saul Bass’ tremendous visual eye, and the incredibly impressive insect photography.
Phase IV is available from Amazon.com.