While it may be hard to envision an art movie about super-intelligent ants wreaking havoc on human victims, Phase IV is just such a film—a creature feature that balances creepy-crawly horror moments with elegantly realized compositions and a weird sort of metaphysical wonderment. Sure, it’s easy to slag the film for being opaque on many levels, since the (human) characterizations are virtually nonexistent and the ending is a cerebral freakout in the 2001 tradition, but Phase IV is too ambitious and interesting to dismiss. Obviously, the most noteworthy thing about the picture is that it’s the sole directorial effort of Saul Bass, the celebrated graphic designer who created numerous posters and title sequences for filmmakers including Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger; accordingly, it’s fascinating to watch Phase IV for sequences in which powerfully minimalistic images such as rows of symmetrical objects evoke Bass’ aesthetic.
Yet it’s unfair to simply categorize Phase IV as a visual exercise, because on some unknowable level, the movie is about something provocative—a meditation on the inevitability of man losing supremacy over the Earth, perhaps. Plus, the picture is quite exciting, speeding through an eventful story in just 84 minutes (the length of the most widely available version), and Bass’ attention to detail generates a handful of memorable scenes. The story is as bare-bones as one of Bass’ striking posters: Two scientists establish an outpost in a remote desert to study ants that have inexplicably joined forces to overrun local livestock. Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) is an obsessed researcher fascinated by the insects’ emotionless collective endeavors, while his associate, James Lesko (Michael Murphy), is excited by the challenge of using mathematical analysis to translate the insects’ “language.” Setting up a fortress-like dome that’s hermetically sealed to avoid contact with ants, the scientists soon find themselves under siege, so they employ chemical toxins as a defense measure. Meanwhile, a young woman (Lynne Frederick) who defied an evacuation order for the surrounding area seeks refuge with the scientists.
As the movie progresses, the ants grow more resourceful in their attacks on the scientists, Hubbs becomes more megalomaniacal, and Lesko grows determined to flee, taking the young woman with him. Phase IV is interesting from start to finish, if only to see what a truly clinical horror film looks like, and the best sequence is a triumph of visual storytelling—worker ants carry a crumb-sized sample of a deadly toxin back to their queen, even though each ant can carry the sample only a short distance before dying from exposure. Then, after the sample finally reaches the queen, she ingests the substance and produces a new, genetically engineered brood—it’s the whole cycle of evolution played out in a handful of minutes. Sure, one wishes Phase IV had a more concrete ending, but there’s a lot to be said for leaving viewers with tantalizing mysteries to ponder.