The late ’60s/early ’70s was a boon for serious science fiction. Thanks in part to the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, allegorical speculation would rule the cinematic landscape until the movies visited a certain War plagued galaxy far, far away. These films used ideas and characters, not cutesy robots or genre-bending action sequences, as a way of getting their point across. Sometimes, they were preachy and unbearable. At other instances, they became the language for all cinema to come. In the case of 1974’s Phase IV, the consensus is clearly divided. On one side are the devotees who appreciate its ecological bent and entomological realism. On the other are critics who decry its smart bug set-up, snickering all the way to its less than crystal clear conclusion.
Of course, the man in charge was perhaps the wrong choice for such a project. Saul Bass was never known as a filmmaker. His title credit sequences for such major motion pictures as The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, and Vertigo set a standard that, even today, remains unmatched. But aside from a few short films, he had never made a feature before Phase IV. There have been controversial debates over his involvement in the work of Hitchcock (including claims he actually directed the shower sequence in Psycho), but nothing here indicates such a skill set. Instead, this future shock look at nature run amuck is a great deal like Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain. Science overwhelms suspense, with occasional bouts of illogic and endless talking juxtaposed alongside brilliant miniature cinematography.
We learn that, as part of some cosmic anomaly (which may or may not be alien driven), Earth is under the influence of certain “phases”. These shifts cause the ant population in particular to rapidly evolve, developing language skills, a hive mentality, and an ability to design and execute geometrically complex structures. Scientists James Lesko and Dr. Ernest Hubbs are sent into the desert to study the creatures, to learn why they are acting so strangely, and hopefully develop a pesticide that will kill them. While farmers like Mr. Eldridge refuse to leave their land, others have taken off to friendlier environs. Of course, the ants won’t tolerate anyone getting in their way. Eventually, all that is left are Lesko, Hubbs, and the Eldridge girl, Kendra. It appears that the super intelligent insects have plans for them as well.
It’s easy to see why Phase IV captivated audiences 30 years ago. With its amazing bug footage, and psychobabble scripting, it’s The Hellstrom Chronicle (an obvious influence) taken into Twilight Zone territory. Thanks to the competent work of everyone behind and in front of the camera, and the ambiguous nature of the narrative, it’s the kind of free associative freak out that drove the counter culture crazy in the waning days of the post-peace protest age. Since Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy have to do almost all the heavy lifting here, they become the most important component of the film’s success. Without them, all we’d have are ravishing views of insect interaction, various luminescent species of ant vying for the crown of best acid trip accoutrement.
Of the two, Murphy is more misplaced. He gets in the swing of things early and often, but frequently ventures out into “hey dude” territory – especially when Lynne Frederick’s nonentity Kendra shows up. He’s clearly intended to be the love interest, but there’s so much outdated computer chaos going on that there’s little time (or chemistry) for romance. Davenport is the major mad scientist, the man who finds himself taken in by the charge he’s been given and unable to control his fits of ego. When he starts raving toward the end, the result of a badly infected bite and too little sleep, he sounds positively potty. But for the most part, he’s the yin to Murphy’s yang, the faux scholarly cement that keeps the entire film from unraveling into nonsensical silliness.
Thanks to Bass’s belief in the mostly silent ant material, sequences where we as an audience have to piece together the reasons behind the bugs’ unusual behavior, Phase IV has an inherent mystery about it. There’s no real attempt at unraveling the nature of the various changes, just that after each one, the insects get more aggressive (and successful) in their attacks. The various sand mounds make a startling impression, including a collection of monoliths that look like statuary singers keening skyward. And this was all done in the days before CGI and complicated physical effects, the result of painstaking nature photography. It’s spellbinding to look at.
For many fans of the film, the only way to enjoy it was to find an out of print VHS version, wait for some obscure cable channel to rerun it late one night, or pray you could find a MST3K fan who owned a copy of the series’ initial days as a local Minnesota UHF broadcast (they tackled the movie with their typical in theater commentary satire). Now, thanks to Legend, the Paramount cast off has been picked up and polished off. While the lack of any supplemental features is disheartening, the nice DVD transfer, capturing the original theatrical aspect ratio, is a marvel to look at. While purists have balked at the lack of the entire print (supposedly, there’s a longer version of the movie out there with extended bits as part of the 2001-style ending), this is an excellent version of Phase IV.
While the concept of super intelligent insects usurping man and his place of power on the planet seems laughable, Saul Bass and the bravura camera work of Dick Bush make Phase IV a worthy addition to the second tier section of ’60s/’70s sci-fi. Sure, it has its flaws, and frequently finds itself bogged down in ancient technological minutia, but for every hackneyed hole-punch moment there’s an engaging scope enhanced by the film’s visual wonders. Saul Bass may not have saved serious speculative fiction from its soon to be blockbuster ways, but his exploratory insect opera has a right to be considered among the category’s many major accomplishments.