Movie Review: “Phase IV” (1974)

tumblr_n3f3w877Cd1s462imo1_1280You might cringe a little bit when you read the synopsis: ants suddenly gain intelligence and begin working together to take over mankind and the world entire. Sounds like pure schlock, right? Maybe something you would see on the Scy-Fy Channel, or even worse, fill in as the sequel to The Swarm? Well, no, actually. Phase IV is about as intelligently crafted a science fiction movie as you will ever see. The theories by which these ants become intelligent are based in mysticism and nature. There is an event in outer space akin to a solar flare, and all of a sudden, ants are able to communicate with each other in more ways than before. They are able to make their own united civilization and essentially, draw up battle plans to attack a team of scientists sent to study what is going on in the area. It is ironic that this film contains no opening titles, since it was directed by the iconic title designer Saul Bass. In fact, this is the only feature film he ever directed, and by the end, you will wonder why and wish he did more.

The story is engrossing. Almost immediately you are pulled into the mayhem. Shots of the sun set the stage, as that is where the problem begins. Then we see ants—millions of them. We see them in their tunnels and doing what ants do. They are real, not computer generated or pieces of foam blown around with a fan. The camera angles and editing are that of a professional nature documentary. The narration stating what is going on is pure fiction, of course, but it makes sense and is so believable that you begin to feel as if they are crawling on you. Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy are the soon-to-be-under-siege scientists in a desert laboratory. Davenport’s character is the foremost expert on ants, while Murphy’s is a game theory genius putting his skills to work trying to uncover the language the ants are speaking to each other. Both are needed to investigate this peculiar phenomena.

There are a few scenes of mayhem and killing, one of which takes place in a moving car and is edited so well that I had to check the credits to see if it was done by the same guy who edited The Wild Bunch. There are fast cuts and slow-motion combined to be able to show two or three things happening at the same time. It truly is marvelous. As the story progresses, the scientists learn more and more, but will it matter? Can two men stop the onslaught of millions of ants? They may be tiny, but remember, now they can think and reason…and are ganging up en masse. The ants build monoliths reminiscent of what we see in 2001: A Space Odyssey around the laboratory. They coat them with a reflective surfaces to basically cause the lab to overheat and drive the workers inside mad.

Why Phase IV is effective is simple: it never becomes cheesy. It is told almost like a documentary. The ants are also normal, real ants, not giant ones with horrible special effects. The final shots of the movie, though ambiguous, perfectly suit the essence of the story: will humanity survive? That is the essential question asked here over and over in this powerful meditation on nature and the effects of disturbances to its flow. Also starring Lynne Frederick.

8 out of 10 stars.

If you have seen the movie, then watch this clip of the original ending of the film before it was edited out by Saul Bass and replaced with the current one. Some copies of the film somehow have this ending, but when I watched it on TCM it did not. Personally, I think this one is even better and should have been left in. Warning: if you have not watched it, do not look at this clip because you will not know what the hell is going on.

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