"That spring, we were all watching the events in space and wondering what the final effect would be...when the effect came, it was almost unnoticed, because it happened to such a small and insignificant form of life..."
~ opening narration from Phase IV
The rather misleading and lurid poster.
When the citizens of a small desert town in Arizona begin evacuating their homes due to what seems like an ant invasion, British scientist Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), begins investigating. He notices a peculiar phenomenon: different species of ants have suddenly stopped fighting and have begun working together, slowly eliminating their natural predators (like spiders, mantises and lizards) and building strange, towering dirt obelisks.
Intrigued, Hubbs uses government grant funds to build a research dome in the area, and calls in younger mathematics student James Lesko (Michael Murphy) to help find patterns in the ants' unusual behavior. The scientists meet with the only residents still in the region, local farming family the Eldridges. James catches the eye of their winsome granddaughter, Kendra (Lynne Frederick), and Hubbs gives them a government-sanctioned order to move out as soon as possible.
Days go by without any overt activity from the ants, so Hubbs decides to provoke things by blowing up their tower constructions. Needless to say, they respond in a hostile manner. Soon the Eldridges are dead, except for Kendra, who survives the ant attack and is brought into the research dome by James. Their jeep destroyed, all communication lines severed and the dome's air-conditioning units sabotaged, the surviving humans find themselves in a battle of wits against an insect enemy that is not only showing signs of extreme, unnatural intelligence, but seems to be trying to communicate with them.
But to what purpose?
Phase IV is the sort of trippy, "out there" science fiction film that could have only have been produced in the 1970s. It has some of the same detached, hard-science approach seen in the earlier The Andromeda Strain (1971), coupled with a mystical, mysterious quality that reminds me a little bit of the two "implacable, unknowable nature" films by Peter Weir, The Last Wave (1977) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). While it's by no means as artful or haunting as the two Weir films, or as clear and plot-driven as Andromeda, Phase IV is nonetheless an original and memorably odd piece of work.
The movie is also a visual treat. It's the only full-length feature film directed by Saul Bass, who was most famous for his imaginative title designs for numerous films, such as Vertigo, The Big Country, Anatomy of a Murder, North by Northwest, Psycho, West Side Story, and too many other classics to name. You can see his fine hand in the design and composition of Phase IV. The movie must not have been a success, as Bass never directed another feature. The script may be a bit opaque, with a minimum of character development, but the overall sense of isolation, claustrophobia and just plain weirdness is palpable, helped along by an appropriately otherworldly, electronic score by Brian Gascoigne.
Special mention must go to the numerous insect sequences filmed by Ken Middleham, which are eerie and fascinating. He managed to capture some amazing shots, which must have taken a very long time, and acres of patience, to film.
Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy do their best to lend some weight to thin characters. Davenport is an accomplished English character actor (and sometime lead) who has turned in interesting work in such films as A Man for All Seasons, Sands of the Kalahari, Play Dirty and No Blade of Grass. Murphy, also an experienced supporting player, is perhaps most well known for co-starring in Woody Allen's Manhattan and several Robert Altman films, including Mash, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville. The two men spar well off each other. There's a hint of the sort of "generation gap" conflict common in films of this time period, as the younger, more empathetic James clashes with the older Hubbs' cold and clinical approach.
As Kendra, the striking British actress Lynne Frederick doesn't get much in the way of dialogue, but is convincingly unsettled and traumatized as the story moves forward. Frederick's first film role was as Davenport's daughter in the end-of-the-world thriller No Blade of Grass. She enjoyed a short but controversial career (one highlight being 1971's Nicholas and Alexandria; she's also in the sexy Hammer horror film Vampire Circus). Her brief marriage in the late 70s to the much-older Peter Sellers left her with a fortune and a "gold digger" reputation she couldn't shake. Barely out of her teens in Phase IV, she's all dewy-eyed innocence and vulnerability. Her American accent slips occasionally, but she's a welcome, human presence.
Humanity's front line? The domed lab in the AZ desert.
This is a film of ideas and images rather than character dynamics, and as such, it doesn't really matter that the actors aren't given much meat to chew on. The three leads are solid, but they're forced into sharing an equal amount of screen time with insects, and it's hard to choose which side is more interesting to watch. That said, I would have welcomed more dialogue and interaction between the scientists and a little less bug footage, as well done as it is.
This balance between the insect and human worlds does give the film its unique feel, however. There really isn't anything out there quite like it, and I recommend it to those looking for a slice of uncanny sci-fi, or just something completely off the beaten path.
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