“That spring we were all watching the events in space and wondering what the final effect would be. Astronomers argued over theory while engineers got pretty excited about variables in magnetic fields. Mystics predicted earthquakes and the end of life as we knew it. When the effect came, it was almost unnoticed because it happened to such a small and insignificant form of life.”
That is how Phase I was described in retrospect by James R Lesko, expert in computers and number theory who participated in the investigation in the Arizona desert into the changed behaviour of a cross-species community of ant colonies who were apparently collaborating and making collective decisions, the research instigated by Doctor Ernest D Hubbs, senior fellow of the Coronado Institute reporting to the National Science Foundation’s Committee on Biological Controls.
The area evacuated and cordoned off save for one family of farmers, the Eldridges, who preferred to remain behind their own defensive preparations in the belief that they would be protected by physical barriers, Hubbs and Lesko retreated to a sealed geodesic laboratory where they undertook their work, one of them attempting to find a way to eradicate the mutated insect strain, the other to understand and even communicate with them.
Released in the summer of 1974, Phase IV was the feature directorial debut of the noted graphic artist and title designer Saul Bass, an experimental science fiction exploration of the balance of hostile humanity and relentless nature by playwright Mayo Simon who had previously written Marooned and would later go on to Futureworld.
With interiors constructed on Pinewood Studios, Phase IV was primarily shot on location in the stunning desolation of the Rift Valley in Kenya by cinematographer Dick Bush whose varied resume included Jonathan Miller’s celebrated adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Whistle and I’ll Come to You, Ken Russell’s Song of Summer and the folk horror classic The Blood on Satan’s Claw for Piers Haggard.
Beneath skies so blue as to be otherworldly, the ants build their geometric constructions, great obelisks reaching towards the sun, while beneath the ground they go about their business, purposeful yet utterly alien as they skitter through darkened corridors carrying crystallised chemicals or the bodies of their fallen comrades. The insects shot by wildlife photographer Ken Middleham who had previously worked on the similarly themed “documentary” The Hellstrom Chronicle, the sequences are astonishing and sinister as the drones and queens swarm and multiply, considering behind their compound eyes as they carefully place the pulsating sacs of their larvae.
Genuinely disturbing, Phase IV is not fantastical so much as analytical, neither Brewster McCloud’s Michael Murphy nor No Blade of Grass’ chain-smoking Nigel Davenport acting like movie stars so much as overworked scientists as they fight both the menace encroaching upon them and each other, later joined by Nicholas and Alexandra’s Lynne Frederick as Kendra, daughter and only survivor of the Eldridge family.
Hubbs an obsessive who cares nothing for the collateral damage caused by the toxic chemicals he releases, only the results his experiment may ultimately produce, the progressive rock/jazz fusion soundtrack collaboration of Brian Gascoigne, David Vorhaus, Desmond Briscoe and Stomu Yamashta elicits more sympathy for a single ant dying as it goes about its duty than the increasingly desperate humans.
Abstract and impenetrable, made to be experienced rather than analysed, filled with striking imagery from the crop circles and dead livestock to the savagery of the ants and the rising sun of the new era, a persistent theme in Bass’ work, Phase IV was not a success on release though with hindsight it fits perfectly within the science fiction cinema of the seventies which also brought the eco-dystopias of Silent Running and Logan’s Run.
Standing as a perfect thematic companion piece to The Andromeda Strain, released three years before, Phase IV echoes into the Borg of Star Trek The Next Generation and more immediately in Doctor Who, as the space insects the Wirrn infest and infect the colonists of The Ark in Space, though for many it was the perhaps undeserved recipient of attention in an early episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Mayo’s Marooned more justifiably lampooned in the fourth season.
Restored for Blu-ray by 101 Films, the new edition contains the original ending of the film, thought lost until 2012 when a faded print was discovered in the Saul Bass Collection at the Academy Film Archive and since recreated from the original film elements, the necessary conclusion as Phase IV itself is reached and humanity becomes the test subjects in a maze as the insects reach ascendancy.
The new edition offering a near pointless commentary by Allan Bryce and Richard Holliss who have no insight beyond the most superficial research and spend more time talking about other films, of more interest is the short documentary An Ant’s Life with FirstBorn’s Sean Hogan and The Creeping Garden’s Jasper Sharp discussing environmental concerns, the cinema of giant insects and parallels with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Bass never having made another feature after the critical and commercial failure of Phase IV, the second disc contains his short films, the abstract philosophy of The Searching Eye (1964, 17 minutes), the lively animated history of discovery and invention of Why Man Creates (1968, 24 minutes), the hilarious and perceptive satirical variety show of Notes on the Popular Arts (1978, 20 minutes) and the alternative energy plea of The Solar Film (1980, 9 minutes), a natural subject for Bass.
Of most interest is the extended interview of Bass on Titles (1977, 33 minutes) as the director considers his contributions to The Man With The Golden Arm, West Side Story and Seconds among others, though presumably his numerous Hitchcock collaborations are sadly omitted for copyright reasons, and concluding the collection is his only other narrative piece, the epic science fantasy of Quest (1984, 29 minutes), written by Ray Bradbury and echoing images of 2001, Zardoz, Dune and the deleted finale of the main feature.