1974 – USA, UK
Director: Saul Bass
Starring: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
The sole feature-length directorial credit of Saul Bass – the legendary visual artist who provided the opening credit sequences to Hitchcock classics Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho – Phase IV is a singularly strange and interesting film. Its basic premise of super-intelligent ants terrorising a couple of scientists (Davenport and Murphy), and a young woman (Frederick) whose family become casualties in the inter-species crossfire, makes it sound like a schlocky B-movie affair; indeed, it’s tempting to compare it to Them! from twenty years earlier. However, it’s a much more cerebral and patiently paced film than one might imagine.
An unexplained cosmic event, denoted in ‘phases’, appears to have strange effects on the worldwide ant population. They communicate with one another, teaming up to destroy their natural predators, and appear to be working as an interconnected hive mind towards… something. Our scientist protagonists are holed up in a sealed laboratory dome, studying the strange activity, although the ants themselves are also treated as protagonists in their own right, with dreamlike, elliptical sequences showing them working as a unit within their colony. Davenport is particularly entertaining as the cold, analytical Doctor Ernest Hubbs, whose dispassionate ‘man of science’ routine steadily becomes more unhinged after he is bitten by one of our insect aggressors.
The scientific research feels believable and well-studied, and as tensions rise within the dome – our two scientists coming to differing opinions as to how to deal with the ant menace – the film reveals itself to be as interested in the principles behind language and mathematics, and the moral imperatives of detached, objective research, as it is in any ‘killer ants’ sci-fi elements. As one would probably expect from a film directed by Bass, it also has some very memorable visual flourishes (such as a nightmarish image of ants emerging from a hole in a man’s hand, and an extended sequence towards the end of the film which relies solely on the throbbing hum of the soundtrack and a series of extraordinary, hallucinatory images, as though something from a vivid dream laced with symbolism).
Intelligent, visually arresting and ultimately ambiguous, Phase IV is the thinking man’s sci-fi movie, and well worth checking out (and as of writing, it’s currently on Netflix!).