When the effect came it was almost unnoticed, because it happened to such a small and insignificant form of life.
(SPOILERS) Phase IV is a perfect embodiment of the cult movie. Strange and misunderstood, it was rejected by audiences on release only to subsequently gain a devoted following. The picture was tampered with by the studio that released it (Paramount), and so myths built up concerning its excised ending (when a print of the film, with the original ending intact, was screened last year it lived up to expectations and cemented the film’s cult reputation. Stung by the treatment he received, Phase IV would remain the sole feature film effort of its director, Saul Bass. Bass, the legendary designer of title sequences for (amongst many others) Hitchcock and Scorsese, was seen as a highly distinctive force anyway. That he turned his effort to such an idiosyncratic choice, a B-movie that facilitated his visual approach to storytelling, reinforces its status as a marvellous curiosity. The plot itself is intriguing, but hardly breaks the mold of gimmicky science fiction yarns; it’s what Bass brings to it as a visionary that ensures Phase IV’s enduring fascination. That, and it’s an ideal stoner movie.
Mayo Simon (no relation to Mark Kermode’s DJ pal) penned Phase IV. He had earlier scripted stranded-in-space drama Marooned, and would deliver the Futureworld sequel a few years later, but has few other notable credits. One would be forgiven for thinking he’d contributed to The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, as the twist narrative has the hallmarks of anthology fare; scientists studying ants come to the realisation that they are the ones being studied. It’s neat and punchy, but where Bass and Simon go further is the intricate exploration of the ant world (David Attenborough might have provided a narration) and the final 2001-esque (although I have to admit that’s a much-used, lazy reference point) leap of mankind to another phase of development.
What it shares more directly with Kubrick’s film is a level of ambivalence towards its human protagonists. There is a sense of detachment regarding their fate and inconclusiveness over this step in evolution (which, after all, is presented with intrinsically sinister overtones). Where it diverges is that Kubrick intentionally underplays his humans (as has been noted many times, with the consequence that the machine HAL becomes the film’s most vital force). Phase IV’s characters are very much stock types. Nigel Davenport is Dr Ernest D Hubbs (you’ve got to love that D), who identifies the changes in the ants and initiates the project. Hubbs is your classic obsessed scientist, whose study is more important than the lives of those around him and who sees himself as engaged in a battle of wills with his subjects; a test of superior intelligence. Davenport attacks the role with relish, making Hubbs a memorable figure as he succumbs to an insect bite and gradually loses his grip; as an English lead in a US film you know from the start that he’s unlikely to be wholly benevolent.
The hero role is taken by Michael Murphy as Hubbs’ colleague, mathematician James R Lesko. Murphy isn’t your natural square-jawed type, however; he’s of the scrawny chinless variety, which adds an unholy frisson to his immediate attraction to nubile waif Kendra (Lynne Frederick who, of course, was married to Peter Sellers and died much too young), rescued (it seems) from the ants and a bombardment of “Yellow” unleashed by the scientists. Although Lesko is cool-headed and favours diplomacy with the ants (via the universal language of maths), it’s notable that his endeavours are no more successfully than Hubbs’. Whether the humans favour self-sacrifice (Kendra), destruction (Hubbs) or peace (Lesko, at least initially) the outcome is the same; their efforts are ultimately ineffectual.
Lesko: When the effect came it was almost unnoticed, because it happened to such a small and insignificant form of life.
The setting, a scientific research station that becomes a death trap, recalls Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, released a few years earlier. It also shares something of that film’s studied approach. But where The Andromeda Strain adopts the pose of the rigorous procedural, Phase IV is wilfully oblique. The conditions that trigger the development of the ants are referred to as merely an “event” in Lesko’s introductory narration. Hubbs’ studies led him to observe that ants of different species were holding meetings while their predators were simultaneously decreasing in numbers, leading to increase in the ant population. If the accompanying footage suggests a BBC natural world documentary (ants destroy a tarantula through time lapse photography), Bass isn’t interested in accurately portraying the world of ants so much as rendering it uncanny. This is underlined by the chemical concoctions used to combat their onslaught; named “Red”, “Blue” and “Yellow”, they are only important symbolically. Later, the ants submit a message to Lesko; a circle with a dot in it. Magically, he is able to construe that the dot represents Hubbs. To expect Lesko to expand on how he reached this conclusion would be foolish.
The human environment is dwarfed by Ken Middleham’s mesmerising microphotography; live ants, dead ants, stop motion ants (who knows how many ants died in the making of this motion picture), puppet ants, point-of-view shots of ants’ honeycomb vision. The intent is to manifest the illusion of a deliberate intelligence setting to work against humankind; one we can suspend disbelief for despite the contra-indicators of scale and threat. As such, most effective are the mini-narratives as the industrious ants effect plans that parallel the human endeavours. If the more typically horror film devices of Kendra’s fleeing family are less arresting, Bass still conjures a dazed environment, with the sun-ripened Kenyan landscape (standing in for the Arizona desert) and deserted towns suggestive of an imminent apocalypse.
It should be noted that, whatever else Bass achieves, consistent verisimilitude is not one of them. Some of the ant sequences wouldn’t look out of place in a Jan Švankmejer film, while the threadbare lab and occasional hysterics of the trio therein occupy a different space to the matte paintings of insect structures (some of which have been built to raise the temperature within the dome). On the other hand the subtitles, informing us of the day and phase, lend the air that these are events recounted under lab conditions. The net result accentuates the weirdness of tone.
If the interior of the dome is decorated with standard issue scientific bric-à-brac, there are peculiarities to note in the structures and designs of the picture. The geodesic dome was a fairly run-of-the-mill emblem of scientific discovery at the time, as Buckminster Fuller’s creation was still in the ascendant. As such it still retains an air of outmoded futurism. The ants’ unexplained towers suggest something of 2001’s Monolith. Then there’s the geometric pattern the insects have fashioned in a nearby field. Again, a reason for this is not forthcoming. Wikipedia, that fountain of party-line thinking, optimistically suggests this early crop circle sighting “it has been cited as a possible inspiration or influence on the pranksters who started this phenomenon”, quite impressive for a design that gets maybe a minute of screen time.
The art director on Phase IV was John Barry; his one dalliance with directing was, like Bass’, an unhappy experience although in Barry’s case he never completed the project (Stanley Donen replaced him). Barry previously worked as production designer on A Clockwork Orange, and went on to win an Oscar for Star Wars (he died in 1979, at only 44).
Hubbs: Let’s see some activity.
If we’re to see the phases as prescribed by the ants, Phase I involves attracting the necessary specimens to the specimen jar. Phase II is the onset of experimentation on the subjects. Phase III is the “contact has been made” moment and Phase IV represents integration.
Hubbs believes he is in control; the ants, which have shown no activity since the scientists arrived, are provoked to respond when Hubbs destroys their structures. His action appears to trigger the events leading to the deaths of Kendra’s grandparents (albeit, they ignored his eviction order). Even then, it would appear that the ants are organising controlled conditions and that Hubbs behaviour is, to some extent, predicted. The initial attack is beaten off and, when Hubbs and Lesko emerge from the dome the next morning, they discover the bodies of Kendra’s family coated in 100% Yellow.
Hubbs: People get killed sometimes.
One might suggest his is a dispassionate, insectoid mind; he is fully occupied with purpose and devoid of feeling. But we see later that the ants mourn their dead, lining them in piles. Examining the body of one of the victim’s, Hubbs outstretches the old man’s hand; ants emerge from a hole in his palm, the inspiration for the rather misleading and grotesque Phase IV poster. Bass was surely inspired by a similar scene of ants in the palm of a hand in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou.
Hubbs: Think of a society in perfect harmony.
We see that Lesko is immediately attracted to Kendra (they share a decontaminant shower, but unfortunately Hubbs is also there to poop the party), and the divisions between the scientists, already seeded in Lesko’s dismay at Hubbs’ unfeeling nature, grow after Kendra smashes the container of live ant samples and Hubbs is bitten. Lesko becomes focussed on the safety of Kendra, while Hubbs ignores his concerns. He lies about rescue being on the way, all the while scratching at his swollen hand (one half expects it to erupt with ants at any moment; anyone seeing the poster would, not unreasonably, think this was likely). So, as the group begins to fall into disarray, the ants’ scheme becomes clearer.
Hubbs: Question. What do they want? What are their goals?
Hubbs shows predictable hubris, unable to conceive that he is being outwitted, convinced that his methods will bring the ants into line (“We can, in a word, educate it”) but he has already experienced the failure of his initial fool proof plan (the ants begin building their reflective structures on a strip of poison) and is unwilling to countenance Lesko’s explanation that they are allowed the power to use their equipment for a few hours each night for a reason; Lesko’s attempt to communicate with them concludes Phase II.
Bass directly emphasises Hubbs’ woolly thinking in the corresponding ant-centric sequences. They bring a sample of Yellow to the queen ant, who ingests it and immunises her brood. They can now traverse the poison patch without misadventure. We are treated to a protracted sequence inside the dome where an ant chews through a vital wire, only to be attacked by a praying mantis. Another ant in turn, attacks the mantis. The mantis falls onto vital connecting terminals, shorting the works.
Hubbs: Why don’t they kill us? Why play these games?
The need for action informs the humans’ behaviour during the third phase, the final phase seen in the theatrical cut of the film. But the ants have everything under control. Hubbs, due to his own deteriorating physical state, volunteers Lesko for a mission to locate and kill the queen. Lesko refuses, at least until he perceives no other option. And poor Kendra is so distraught she heads out barefoot to give herself to the ant legions. (Prior to this, an effective moment shows her awaken. On seeing a tiny ant close by she pleads with it to leave her alone.) This isn’t an especially notable role for Frederick. She is required to do little more than look pretty, get upset and have Murphy stare intently/creepily at her. Then, decent roles were beginning to dry up for her by this point.
Lesko: The dot is you. They want you.
Shorn of the original ending, the comment “Now I know how an ant feels in a maze” is not made psychedelically explicit, but it’s clear that Lesko has passed the intelligence test while Hubbs represents an impediment to be eliminated. Is purely due to his antagonism, or is his demise also punishment for the wholesale slaughter he inflicted? The deluge of ants that rain down on him isn’t exactly restrained, not when one single ant bite appears to slowly kill him.
I was put more in mind of Ken Russell (appropriately enough, cinematographer Dick Bush was a regular collaborator with Russell) than Stanley Kubrick by the array of vivid imagery that occurs during the trippy end sequence; I’m thinking Altered States in particular (although Bush didn’t work on that picture). The prelude to this is Kendra rising sphinx-like from the sands. The preceding scene, as a suited Lesko struggles through the red-hued wastes towards the queen’s nest, is marbled with doom; his voiceover professing that he is enacting Hubbs’ suggestion of a counterattack, their one last chance. The shot of an ant crawling across Lesko’s fracture helmet is suggestive of the victim shot through her glasses in Battleship Potemkin, and the poster art for Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.
Lesko: They united us.
The sight of a very comely Lynne Frederick rather changes Lesko’s priorities. As it would. Just ask Peter Sellers. Well, you can’t, I know. The ants presumably reasoned that introducing Kendra to Lesko would be most effective means of bringing him to heel, and it works a treat.
Lesko: We knew then we were being changed and made part of their world. We didn’t know for what purpose but we knew we would be told.
As noted, the above lines don’t appear in the Bass ending of the film; it’s left to the viewer to interpret the visual language as they will. The theatrical release contains limited use of shots from the original ending, which include the Sun overlaid both on Lesko’s palm (which we immediately associate with the earlier, anti-ridden palm) and his third eye. The final shot of Lesko and Kendra, staring out at the desert, observed by ants, is enigmatic but the voiceover intimates that the ants have yoked, rather than freed, them.
In both versions, however, there is an underlying vibe of “Well, these ants may have got their way, but if Michael Murphy can make it with Lynne Frederick there may be something to be said for this insectopia”. At least the ants don’t intent to divest us of our procreative function; they want to encourage it! With babes! One might argue the ascendancy depicted is part of Phase III, since the final subtitle doesn’t appear until the end of the sequence, but it seems more appropriate to discuss it here.
The cascade of images and accompanying soundtrack evokes (in a good way) the unfettered madness of a ‘70s prog rock album. The film as a whole is marked out by a disorientating synth score that gnaws away at you, but there are three different composers involved. When the ants are at play in their micro world, the accompaniment is closer to fractured jazz.
Lesko and Kendra are seen running through dissolves of an orange-Sun soaked landscape, spewing volcanic eruptions, across a vast ziggurat; then to silhouetted individuals standing atop and separated within cubicles (the barriers to the hive mind) while gazed upon by a spider (I’m slightly puzzled by this – as opposed to anything else here! – as it most definitely is a spider, not traditionally a friend of the ants); then Lesko and Kendra again running through a maze; individuals masked by front projection, wearing special glasses as worn in the decontaminant shower, all assigned codes and numerical classifications; a man without a face; two fingers bursting from a bald head; fingers of two hands forming an arachnid shape; fingers aflame; suspended figures laid out in rows; human faces in ant eggs (?); a distorted face; Lesko and Kendra running across a volcanic landscape; a half-woman, half-fish (WTF?! – and I don’t mean mermaid-style); a silhouetted man walking into a desert; a bald-headed man buried up to his eyes, with a black spot on his third eye from which – surprise! – an ant emerges; that spider again; clouds under an orange filtered sky, with Lesko and Kendra sitting beneath them; the Sun superimposed on the heart chakra, then the third eye, then the palm of Lesko; the Sun superimposed over Kendra, including a close-up of her open mouth; Lesko and Kendra’s faces merged as within a hall of mirrors; (Kendra’s?) nude torso revolving and mirroring itself; their faces merging again; the sun setting between (Kendra’s) naked thighs; a hand stretching out, a droplet coming from it with the Sun superimposed; (Lesko) splashing water, then swimming frog-like and with frogs; an unfurling rose; a boy and a chimp atop a ziggurat; a naked man flying with a hawk over geometric lines; the sun again, and Lesko and Kendra staring into the distance, backs to us, cutting to ants observing them and the slightly silhouette of mandibles rearing next to Lesko’s head as it raises an anty arm. As the Sun rises, Phase IV appears on the screen.
The bizarreness of some of the imagery suggest either Bass got carried away or he designed the sequence to suggest not just humans but all animals (the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, the fish in the sea) would become as one with the hive mind. One might argue that the embodiment of the change is not the ants, but the alien intelligence (if that’s what it is) that changed the ants. Since the ants most naturally embody unified purpose (bees too perhaps), which is the changing environment to which all of Earth is now subject, they are the best facilitators to engender this planet-wide.
So what to make of the suggested communist subtext of the film? The humans are inducted into a hive mind, the next stage of evolution. The dominion of the ants is inevitable and inexorable, but are they to be perceived as the villains of the piece? Or the liberators? Bass and Simon are unforthcoming. The ants drive out predators, and attack Kendra’s grandparents, but it is the scientists’ own Yellow that kills her kin. The ants engulf Hubbs, but he meant them harm. Their aim is to raise (or lower?) Kendra and Lesko to humankind’s coming phase of development; they represent an Adam and Eve for the ant kingdom, bringing their united state to the rest of humanity.
Is this a bad thing? In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both versions, the passive hive mind is seen as a negative force. It eradicates individuality, traditionally seen as the central pillar of what it means to be human (just ask Captain Kirk). 2001’s one giant leap still finds individualised humanity reaching some form of ultimate transcendence. Phase IV arrives at a place of (depending on the given ending) imminent instruction or inferred dominion where humans may now be the insects (the image of an ant’s mandibles hanging over tiny humans, as if about to chomp them, might be seen as either a godlike release of a new creation set free into an arid Eden or an indication that the visual orgasm of transformation has ushered them into exactly the release version’s place of the pests controlling).
One might even consider a Vietnam era metaphor, in which the technologically advanced scientists (America) unleash destructive might (napalm, Yellow) on the extraordinarily resilient ants (the Vietnamese; ), who by guile and determination outmatch and best their oppressors through knowledge of the terrain and guerrilla warfare.
Or perhaps Simon and Bass, in a tale where the alien insects endeavour to inflict a hive mind on humankind, were warning us of the nefarious agenda of the “Greys”; the extra-terrestrial icon of choice of the last 30 years or so. Hmmm.
It was a curious decision by Paramount to excise the ending (particularly as they included a number of shots from it in the trailer); it’s not as if anyone who gets that far will suddenly see it as the final straw. You already need a certain type of viewer. One willing to indulge ant puppetry; most likely the same sort who won’t blink an eye at a fish woman. Most egregiously, it means that the final subtitle never explains the film. Okay, one might argue the studio was going for the extra subtle option, allowing the viewer to deduce that this is the dawn of Phase IV, but it seems more like indiscriminate use of the scissors. I haven’t seen the other extant five minutes (the studio cut the film from 93 minutes to 84) and, as I understand it, the 2012 screening reattached only the ending. Who knows what other goodies remain, one day, to be assimilated.
Phase IV deserves greater attention. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a neglected masterpiece, but it’s an Exhibit A cult movie. The poster suggests standard genre horrors, not so far removed from Them! and its super-sized radioactive ants. Such misrepresentation fails to warn of a far-out, psychedelic science fiction movie that gets under the skin. Now that Phase IV has been rediscovered in all (more of) its triptastic glory, it is overdue a wider release and reappraisal.