Phase IV (1974)

I love when a movie poster is totally wrong. There are no giant ants, the earth is not turned into a cemetery, the shiny dome does not catch on fire, and ants do not climb out of a bloody hole in a person’s hand. The hole isn’t bloody when they do that. Yeah, it’s a more coherent Un Chien Andalou in that scene. And I promise that’s where my comparisons to Luis Buñuel end, folks.

In the beginning, there is a solar eclipse with the planets aligned. Suddenly, ants begin talking to each other and develop weird forehead medallions and begin organizing across species. Then they build towers. A British entymologist notices this and gets a cryptographer from the US Navy to join him in a silver dome out in the Arizona desert to study the ants. They soon end up having to shelter a teenager whose family is killed by the ants, as they try to understand and communicate with their insect adversaries. Of course, things don’t work out as planned, the ants prove to be decisive opponents, and in the end everything goes south, with human beings potentially becoming part of the hive.

If you are expecting this to be your typical killer ant movie, somewhere along the likes of Them! or Empire of the Ants, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. For one thing, those movies both involved giant bugs. For another, this movie is more about scientists trying to study a problem under extreme conditions while facing a species that is radically more intelligent and alien in its own way. Because of this, I find the film has more in common with The Andromeda Strain or even Arrival than other killer ant movies. You have a pair of scientists, one of whom is coldly scientific and respects the bugs but lacks in empathy for both insect and man, while the other uses cryptography and sound to try and understand the ants’ linguistics and ends up invariably deeply changed for the experience. Yes, this is a movie about bug language.

As strange as that may sound, it actually comes together really well. At times this movie has a pseudo-documentary feel, particularly with all the shots inside the ant hive as the ants do things like gather and mourn their dead, move poison through the tunnels, and work with the ant queen to birth new specializations. As exploitative as a movie about killer ants could be, there is enough pseudo-science behind it to make for an unusual and unique experience. And then it goes full art house at the end, as one man enters the center of the hive and has what I think I was supposed to represent a sex scene with a sixteen-year-old. It’s weird, and it works. The art part, not the sex with a teenager part. Ants need to pay more attention to and respect age ranges.

Why does it work? The director was Saul Bass, an award winning graphic designer who only directed one movie but had a hand in the advertising, promotion, and filming of a multitude of award winners. You may not know Bass’ name, but odds are you’re aware of his work, most notably as the storyboard artist who developed the famous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. He was credited in the film as Pictorial Consultant and Title Designer. While Phase IV is the only film Bass ever directed, he knew what would work visually, so when it needs to be, it’s cold and scientific, and then it goes full art house without skipping a beat or losing the audience. It’s a shame Bass didn’t direct more movies.

Is Bass’ background and personal understanding of cinema how we ended up with the imagery reminiscent of Buñuel that I mentioned earlier? That…would not surprise me in the slightest. Needless to say, I got a kick out of how bizarre Phase IV is, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a little more out of their killer bug movies.

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