Phase IV (1974)
Written by Mayo Simon
Directed by Saul Bass
Saul Bass is primarily known for his graphic design work in the opening titles of films like Vertigo, Psycho, West Side Story, and many others. Phase IV was Bass’s first and only foray into feature film directing. Anytime you get a movie made by someone working primarily in the visual arts, it’s going to be visually appealing but not necessarily following the standard narrative structures. Kubrick was a photographer, David Lynch is a painter, and so on. Panos Cosmatos has cited Phase IV’s influence on his own Beyond the Black Rainbow. These directors aren’t so much interested in narrative points and character beats as they are as in establishing a potent atmosphere. Saul Bass’s Phase IV falls right into that same category.
Ants across the globe begin to exhibit behaviors heretofore never seen in the wake of an unexplained cosmic event. There is what appears to be coordinated communication and movement between species of ants. Scientists James Lesko (Michael Murphy) and Ernest Hubbs have constructed a research facility in Arizona to monitor and study a colony there and find beautifully and geometrically perfect mounds and towers being built. The ants are attacking livestock at a local farm, and the scientists urge the farmer and his family to leave as soon as possible. Hubbs becomes obsessed with proving humanity’s superiority to the creatures while Lesko works to decode their communication and to somehow send a message back to the ants.
The premise of Phase IV could easily be fodder for throwaway garbage science fiction, but the directorial decisions of Saul Bass elevate the material into a higher level of intellectual science fiction. This makes the point that media in this genre that focus on exploring and expanding upon interesting ideas and philosophy can transcend any “goofiness” the initial premise might hold. Bass incorporates long stretches of wildlife footage from Ken Middleham, which helps add to the alien nature of the ants. The way we see their reactions to humans adds a layer of intelligence to what most people don’t think of as animals worthy of thought. There is one haunting “funeral” sequence that will inevitably make the viewer doubt who the villains in the story really are.
There is almost zero character development beyond some broad strokes, especially for poor Kendra, the farmer’s daughter, who ends up holed-up with the scientists in their geodesic dome. She ends up playing such a crucial role in the finale that I felt she needed some more time to be fleshed out as a character. Instead, Kendra becomes your typical “pretty girl in the background” for most of the picture. That’s not to say Lesko and Hubbs get much more to do, though I think Hubbs has the most evident character arc out of everyone, as he’s the scientist that loses his mind and objectivity over the experiment.
There was no shortage of killer animal science fiction movies at this point in time, but Bass takes a sharp left into 2001: A Space Odyssey Territory. This isn’t a film set up for gory death scenes of people eaten by giant ants. Instead, we get an incredibly cerebral story that, like all good science fiction, uses a fantastic premise to comment on contemporary humanity. When faced with an entity as intelligent and possibly more than humanity, each scientist takes an approach that our species so often does. One wants to master and break this challenger while the other leans in to his curiosity and wants to understand it better.
There is an alternate ending cut from the final product, no real reason is known, but I suppose the studio thought it was way too abstract and confusing. Bass provides the viewer with disturbing imagery that hints at what the future holds for the human race. Ants loom over human figures. The physical forms of animal and man are blurred together. A hole appears in a man’s ahead, and ants begin to swarm out of it. Bass implies that if our species makes contact with a higher lifeform, it will be up to us to transform and transcend. If we can’t, then extinction will be the only other path.