PHASE IV (1974) / CERT:12 / DIRECTOR: SAUL BASS / SCREENPLAY: MAYO SIMON / STARRING: NIGEL DAVENPORT, MICHAEL MURPHY, LYNNE FREDERICK/ RELEASE DATE: APRIL 6TH
It’s not unreasonable to hope that a film about an evolutionary shift in the ant population causing a threat to humanity when the insects develop a collective intelligence and a cross-species hive-mind mentality might deliver a few deliciously cheesy thrills in the style of 1954’s classic Them!, in which giant ants invaded the storm drains of Los Angeles. But wait up; Phase IV hails from 1974, smack in the middle of that strange nowhere space between the lurid exploitation genre films of the 1950s and 1960 and the big budget extravaganzas that would follow in the wake of the likes of Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977. Sci-fi movies in the 1970s were not only few and far between as the genre had fallen out of favour somewhat, they were also attempting to be little more thought-provoking in an attempt, presumably, to avoid being tarred with the brush that had tainted the genre’s reputation in previous decades. Some higher profile crowd pleasers slipped through the net, though, and the likes of The Omega Man and Soylent Green are rightly lauded for their prescience as well as their sense of adventure. Phase IV falls on the wrong side of the fence; it’s very much an art house sci-fi movie and it’s really very dull indeed.
Two scientists (Davenport and Murphy) set up a computerized domed laboratory in an area of significantly-heightened ant activity in the Arizona desert near a cluster of strange towers that the ants appear to have built. The film rather unsubtly contrasts the ‘worker’ scientists busy in their enclosed environment with the worker ants scuttling around in their colonies. Chemical weapons have no effect on the ants, who eventually infiltrate the laboratory and compromise all the scientific equipment. The scientists are torn as to how to best deal with this new threat. Lesko (Murphy) believes he can communicate with the ants but Hubbs (Davenport) favours wiping the nest out and killing the queen. But Hubbs has been ‘bitten’ and starts to become delirious and the presence of Kendra (Frederick), who has taken refuge with the scientists, seems to be somehow making things worse.
Phase IV is an interesting curio but really little more. The core idea of sentient ants rarely comes across as a genuinely troubling threat to the ecosystem. Wildlife photographer Ken Middleham’s insect sequences are beautifully filmed, often fascinating, and occasionally a bit disturbing (real ants were clearly harmed in the making of the film) but the human characters are dry and starchy and the narrative’s sluggishness and the generally cold and clinical nature of the story and its settings makes the whole thing hard to relate to or much care about. The original ending to the film (rediscovered in 2012 and included as a special feature on this new 2-disc release) imagined a ‘new world’ where humanity has been subsumed and altered by the evolution of ant intelligence but was excised before the film’s release by the distributor. The theatrical ending is vague and ambiguous with a voice-over from Lesko admitting that he doesn’t know what the ants are planning and that he is awaiting further instructions. It’s a flat and lifeless ending to a film that squanders the potential of its concept by listless direction - Saul Bass never directed a feature film again thanks to Phase IV’s poor reception - and a visual palette that rarely rises above the bland and a script that abandons any attempt at pace and tension and tumbles into a pit of self-indulgence and bland scientific detachment. The film looks fairly crisp, if occasionally a little grainy, and it’s supported by the usual comprehensive set of special features we’ve come to expect from 101 Films. But ultimately, Phase IV is little more than a fitfully interesting example of the middle ground occupied by science fiction cinema in the early 1970s where it was neither fish nor fowl or, in this particular case, ant.