Phase IV (1974)
The day the Earth was turned into a cemetery!
Year of Release: 1974
Genre: Science Fiction/Horror
Running Time: 84 minutes (1:24)
Director: Saul Bass
Nigel Davenport ... Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs
Michael Murphy ... James R. Lesko
Lynne Frederick ... Kendra Eldridge
Two scientists install themselves in an ant-proof dome full of computer equipment that interprets the ants' communications. When the men spread a yellow poison over the area, annihilating millions of ants, the surviving ants find an antidote to the poison and, even stronger, they strike back. What follows is not so much science fiction as it is science fact thrust one step forward.
Phase IV, remindin' us that if humanity's political differences were settled in the same manner as ant politics, everything'd run a whole lot smoother. Really all you'd have to do'd be to bar the doors on the congressional chamber an let 'em kill each other until they were able to reach a consensus. An added bonus to this is that you could broadcast the whole thing live on pay-per-view an prolly wipe out the national debt in a single day. Maybe give it a slick ad campaign like "Hunger Games: D.C. Edition. The first emergency legislation session to rekindle the national interest since Watergate, live on pay-per-view this Independence Day. Uncle Sam wants YOU - glued to your set!" I'd definitely tune in for that, wouldn't you? An speakin' of cage matches, Sadie Bonebreak moved back in with who's-'er-cooch last week after they had one of those real fierce fights about their relationship that get your heart goin' a mile a second until you forget whatever it is you're mad about an start rollin' around on the floor like two drunks fightin' over a whiskey bottle. Woulda been better if they hadn't reconciled out on the front lawn though, cause Apollo saw the whole thing from his bench seat an kept comin' inside an whinin' at me to break 'em up cause he thought they were killin' each other. I guess it's just as well, cause a coupla days after Sadie left my water heater quit on me. I know it coulda happened to anybody, but it was still pretty danged inconvenient. Golldanged freeloadin' raccoon snuck in through Shankles' doggie door an started chowin' down on the rabbit kabobs I'd given 'im since I wasn't gonna be able to finish 'em all (Seriously, Cleave, I'm only one man. I don't need 14 cottontails just cause you're tryin' to justify huntin' Scat Flats all day cause you're afraid Night of the Lepus could really happen), an when Shankles saw what was goin' on WWIII broke out. I dunno how many of you've ever hadda try separatin' a possum an a racoon while protectin' your gondolas at the same time, but it's not an easy business, an the short version is that I hadda resort to nail gun fu. Unfortunately, one of 'em ricocheted off the toolbox an punctured the water tank. Never did manage to hit the bastard, but the noise the heater made when that nail sank into it sent 'im runnin', an I don't imagine he stopped until he'd crossed into Montana. That's why I didn't get around to the flick last week, but I'm pretty sure I got the hole welded shut now, an if that don't work I'll see if I can't pay Sadie's girlfriend to keep the hole plugged with 'er finger like the little Dutch boy, since she seems to know how to handle situations like that pretty well.
Anyhow, we got somethin' a little different this week, Phase IV, which is one of your finer nature-goes-nuts flicks to feature ants as the offendin' fauna. I guess the killer ant flick just didn't have that same appeal as the killer bee movie. But all that really means is that we gotta pay extra special attention an study 'em as closely as possible to make sure we don't miss anything that might keep us from livin' our lives to the fullest, an I've tweezered out a few of the most important issues currently bein' brought to light in the field of ant cinema. First, if your computer shuts down due to heat exhaustion there's no reason to panic. It'll be perfectly fine once the room temperature drops back below 90. Second, non-union Commie ants work about a hunnerd times faster'n our domestic capitalist ants. An third, killin' a girl's family is one thing, but you kill 'er horse an you'd best be prepared for claw hammer fu. But here's my question in all this: how come our solution to everything is to destroy anything we happen to come across that's different'n us? Seems like we're always takin' a "ship all the Indians off to the reservations" attitude, or a "stockpile 496,000 nuclear warheads so the Commies'll be too scared to come over here an try gettin' Commienism into our schools" approach. Shoot, even Cortez at least TRIED convertin' all the heathen Aztec heart-rippers to Catholicism before he unleashed the pain from Spain all over their uncovered hineys, I mean, are we worse than Cortez for cryin' out loud? Tryin' to kill everybody ain't gonna get you anywhere, cause sooner or later a Chuck Norris or a Sly Stallone emerges from the peasantry an starts goin' bombs over 'Nam all over you until your approval ratins start droopin' like a pair of boxer shorts in Compton. No, the way to get along with foreigners is to convert 'em to your way of thinkin' via bribery so that nobody hasta learn to accept other types of people (or super intelligent mutant space alien ants, for that matter) the way they are. Religion's a pretty good way to do this, cause alls you gotta do is convince 'em that our American/Earth God has the biggest swag supply waitin' for 'em in the afterlife, an that the path they're currently headed down won't net 'em so much as a Motel 5 suite in heaven. That's the American way, an that's why everybody wants to come here. Conversion therapy's way cheaper'n flyin' over to some third world country to try twistin' the entire population's collective arm until they scream "Ai qweet! Now geet off me you fat eenfeedel!" We've come far enough as a society that there really ain't no reason why we've gotta be *that guy* anymore, that's all I'm sayin'. We're better'n that. I mean, if we we can all make nice an get along with Quebec, then surely we can coexist with a few super smart ants from outer space, right? This's EXACTLY why E.T. was in such a hurry to get off the goddamned planet, an he was a butt-ugly space reptoid with a head like an Australian football. We really gotta start doin' better as a planet, people; this kinda intolerance ain't scorin' us any points with the rest of the universe.
The movie begins with a narrator talkin' all metaphysical about some real vague outer space phenomenon that occurred, an how humanity was caught completely off guard by it cause it only affected this one group of ants instead of followin' classic the sci-fi movie formula an strikin' some rural community fulla hamdingers who start mosta their sentences with "I reckon." To make matters worse, the only guy who took up any interest in this astrological asshattery was a lone limey scientist (Hubbs), cause apparently everyone else was in Lauderdale for spring break tryin' to slurp cheap tequila outta the navels of dumb college girls or somethin'. Meanwhile, the ants're organizin'. They're holdin' democratic elections, discoverin' the cure for baldness, puttin' together productions of Swan Lake for the entomological community, buildin' alien ant farms, an generally gettin' their stuff together. Cept then these free-thinkin' pacifist ants were all like "hey, if the rest of you guys keep actin' like Iron Curtain Communants people're gonna take a negative view of us an we'll never get our own Pixar movie," which is about the time the hardliner ants decided to sort out their political differences by eatin' the hippy ants until everybody was on the same page. So anyway, now we come to the present where Hubbs an his assistant bug guy (James) are drivin' out to this place called Paradise City, only the grass ain't green an the girls all moved to Vegas to become showgirls cause of the ant problem. Now the place pretty much looks like the cast of The Hills Have Eyes used it for a porta-potty, except for the fact that there're these 100' tall match sticks risin' up outta the desert that the ants're plannin' to turn into windmills so they can generate enough electricity to get cable. So a few days later, Hubbs an James find a coupla dead sheep out in the middle of this big crop circle, an since the last thing they need is the ants sendin' signals to the space aliens cruisin' around Roswell, they head over to this farmer's place an help 'im fill his irrigation ditch with gas so they can torch any ants that decide to make like Washington crossin' the Delaware. Then they spend the next two days buildin' a base of operations that looks like the Epcot Center, only by now the feds're barkin' down their snorkel about the budget crisis, so Hubbs hasta go knock over all the ants' 2001 stone monoliths with a potato gun to justify their field trip. The ants are P.O.'d, so they decide to build a buncha pontoon boats an make their way across the Cuyahoga an show the farmer's family exactly what they think of all the farm subsidies they're sockin' away.
Then the ants radio for the clandestine termite unit to eat the family's house til they've got no choice but to hop in their jalopy an head for Hubbs' giant embedded golf ball buildin'. That goes about as well as you'd expect when they discover they've got ants gettin' whacked out on the Dr. Pepper corn syrup runoff inside their cup holder, who start bitin' everything in sight tryin' to protect their Ant Jemima sugar supply. Meanwhile, James is back at the Epcot Center watchin' a Windows 95 screensaver an usin' words like "parameter" an "vector" all the time, but basically what he's sayin' is that they prolly shouldn't have knocked down the ant condos cause now all the ant developers're royally hacked off. Then the ants send a suicide bomber into the Epcot generator to take out their power supply, only they've got a backup unit an Hubbs flicks this switch that kicks on the Nickelodeon slime sprinkler system outside an updates the weather forecast to include fallout flurries an nuclear winter like conditions. We're talkin' serious ant-acid face-meltin' pesticide here. Course, they dunno the family's outside tryin' to get in, so when Hubbs an James go outside the next mornin' they find Mom'n Pop crumpled up like old gas station receipts with skin like the Wicked Witch of the West. Fortunately, their granddaughter (Kendra) managed to get inside the storm shelter that's protected by old weather beaten plywood doors, an so Hubbs an James carry 'er back inside so they can all get nekkid an decontaminated. Now Hubbs wants to start in with the Guantanamo interrogations on the survivin' ants he pried outta Pop's moldy dead hands, cept Kendra's still P.O.'d about the ants strippin' 'er mare down to it's chassis an she goes apeshit an starts introducin' external stimuli into Hubbs' experiments in the form of a claw hammer. Elsewhere, the ants're haulin' this chunk of radioactive cereal down to the queen cause she's gotta have 'er Pops, an once she chows down on it she starts breathin' like Darth Vader an poppin' out a buncha nuclear green eggs that hatch into Atom Ants. The next mornin', Hubbs is positively ecstatic about the ants becomin' resistant to the poison an buildin' a buncha pyramids with reflective surfaces all around the Epcot Center that're now threatenin' to bake everybody into turkey pot pies.
James don't like how cocky these smarmy ants're gettin', so he decides to isolate the most annoyin' sound in the world on a reel to reel an beam it out at the ants to destroy their pyramid scheme. Unfortunately the ants have a splinter cell inside the Epcot Center, an they proceed to gnaw through the wiring in the A/C unit an put it outta commission so it'll get too hot inside for Hubbs an James to use their science stuff. Then we watch the ants that survived the structural collapse of half their solar panels haul all their fallen comrades down to this big bug tomb to give a eulogy, after which we're forced to look at row upon row of their Orkin'd companions like some History Channel special on Antschwitz. You'd better believe the survivin' ants're P.O.'d. So later that night, James uses the few minutes he has where the temperature dips below the "August in Baghdad" notch on the thermometer to send math equations out to the ants through a big broadcastin' antenna to see if he can't open up a dialog an possibly get some help with his midterm assignment so he won't hafta repeat geometry class again. Unfortunately, by the time mornin' rolls around, the ant bite Hubbs suffered while Kendra was bustin' his beakers has now swollen up into a 12lb potato an pretty well sent 'im out of his cracker. But amidst the unintelligible heat stroke babble, he's able to explain to James that an ant hill's a lot like a chess board, an that if they can take out the queen they'll be able to force an unconditional surrender. That, or maybe they'll just get so P.O.'d that they rush the Biodome with everything they've got an eat everybody startin' at their feet while they watch. But about that time the ants finally get their fax machine up an runnin' an send James a picture of a parallelogram with an Atari controller disk inside, which James seems to think depicts the ants' desire for one of the people inside the base to come outside an listen to their demands. Course, when Kendra hears this assessment, she figures the ants want her cause they remember all the time she used to spend fryin' 'em with magnifyin' glasses when she was a kid, so she heads out to the mound to die for our sins, or something, I didn't quite understand that part. Gonna cut it off here though, cause there's a pretty fair twist ending comin' up that I don't wanna ruin.
Alrighty, well, you wouldn't think that there'd be any way to make a killer ant movie work without adding in a little nuclear fallout to increase their size, but Phase IV is actually pretty well made and succeeds due to its interesting premise. One needs only to watch It Happened at Lakewood Manor (aka Ants) to see how a concept like this is likely to turn out without an intellectual hook, and really, if you haven't got an effective way to make insects menacing, you really should just use the tried and true method of blowing them up to gigantic size, a la "Them!". Phase IV needn't resort to that (not that there's anything wrong with doing so), because it manages to sustain a thinking man's plot without ever becoming bogged down. I realize how implausible that sounds, especially for a 1970s movie, but it's true. It's also structured differently than most movies, in that there's no opening jolt or sequence that lays the groundwork for the rest of the movie, rather, it starts right up in much the same way Night of the Living Dead does, with the viewer being thrown into the situation with little to no background information on what's happening. And like Night of the Living Dead, the director never lets the movie drag for too long before adding a new development to keep things moving. I realize that if you've never seen it, it's probably difficult to believe that anyone could make a serious movie about super intelligent ants that's engrossing, well paced, and even a bit suspenseful, but apparently nobody bothered to tell Saul Bass it couldn't be done. Bass was a pretty interesting character as well, with his primary film experience coming as an opening title designer. He designed the opening titles for flicks like Vertigo, The Big Country, North by Northwest, Psycho, West Side Story, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Alien, Cape Fear, and a whole slew of others, but Phase IV was the only feature length movie he ever directed. I don't really understand why that is, because with the exception of a few minor mistakes, the man's direction is good enough that he's able to help you get past the little problems the flick has (along with the somewhat absurd premise) and focus on the bigger picture. Which is no easy task with a movie like this. It would've been interesting to see what else he might have done had he been given the opportunity to direct more movies, but unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. You'd also think that since the movie starts without any kind of buildup, the characters must be bland, poorly defined, and unrelatable, but that's not true either. I suppose Lynne Frederick's character probably isn't the most charismatic performance ever put to film, but the two male leads are likeable and sympathetic enough that you care what happens to them. Basically, it's one of the weirdest movies I've ever seen that's actually played straight, and well executed. Though it would've been even weirder if they'd used the original ending, which is just a buncha abstract bullstuff glued together that looks like a music video made as a joint production by Nine Inch Nails and Andy Warhol.
But anyway, let's beam this sucker into space and see if there's anybody out there who'd consider us intelligent life forms after viewing it. The plot is a little difficult to take, and that's mostly because you get so little information about what exactly caused the ants to gain their super intelligence. In 2001, for instance, it's explained that the stone monoliths super charge humanity's evolution, but there's nothing like that here, and it's a bit of a problem. It's actually the same basic plot as Maximum Overdrive, and while it's plain to see how much better Bass dealt with it than Stephen King, a little more information would have been nice. Beyond that, most of the little details are handled pretty well, and the series of events actually make sense as the movie plays out. The acting is pretty decent, with Nigel Davenport hogging the spotlight as the slightly surly, obsessed Dr. Hubbs. He's playing sort of a subdued version of Robert Shaw's Jaws role, which is pretty entertaining once the ant bite starts going to his brain. The guy had a pretty hefty obligation to perform well given how small the cast is, with just three principals and three other supporting members who get a grand total of 4 minutes on screen, and I think he did an excellent job. Here's who matters and why: Nigel Davenport (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes, Dracula 1974, The Picture of Dorian Gray, No Blade of Grass), Michael Murphy (X-Men: The Last Stand, Special Report: Journey to Mars, Batman Returns, Shocker, Strange Behavior, Count Yorga Vampire), Lynne Frederick (Schizo, Vampire Circus, No Blade of Grass), Alan Gifford (2001: A Space Odyssey, Devil Doll, The Electronic Monster, Satellite in the Sky), Robert Henderson (Superman 1 & 3, Morons from Outer Space), Helen Horton (Alien, Superman III), David Healy (Labyrinth, Supergirl 1984, Haunted Honeymoon, The Ninth Configuration). Being PG rated as it is, and having something approaching a budget as it did, you could rightly assume that at least a coupla cast members actually played in a few "respectable" roles, and here they are: Nigel Davenport was Lord Birkenhead in Chariots of Fire, and The Duke of Norfolk in A Man for All Seasons, while Michael Murphy portrayed Yale in Manhattan (1979), Pete Curtis in The Year of Living Dangerously, and Mr. Smith in What's Up, Doc?
The special effects haven't aged too well, although for 1974 they would have been considered at least adequate and possibly even good. There really aren't too many of them, and the fact that they haven't held up well isn't too detrimental just due to the fact that they aren't terribly important, nor do they get a great deal of screen time. You've got the opening scene with the planets orbiting in space, which is not terribly brilliant, the two types of towers erected in the desert (which use a combination of good miniatures and bad superimposition), the sun reflecting off the towers (kinda hokey), ants filmed in front of a rear projection screen (which pretty much never looks good), and some ants crawling out of a dead hand (probably the best effect in the movie, and genuinely decent). So basically, most of the effects are a bit subpar by modern standards, but they don't factor in that heavily anyway. The shooting locations are pretty good, with the bulk of the outdoor scenes being shot in Arizona, and apparently Kenya, although I couldn't tell you which are which. Really though, the best location is the set used for the interior of the lab, which was filmed in England. Huge mainframes, command consoles, cool dials, switches, lights, everything you need for a decent science fiction set is present in this movie. Really liked the interior of the Epcot Center dome. The soundtrack is pretty weird, but fits in perfectly with the tone of the movie and greatly improves the flick's atmosphere. There're a few scenes that really would have come off as goofy if not for the mood being set perfectly via the soundtrack, particularly, the scene where they're playing this really melancholy theme as you're seeing the rows of ant casualties following the pyramid collapses. But the composer inexplicably manages to convey the sense of grief being portrayed by the remaining ants, despite how ridiculous that sounds. Ultimately, all the weird music matches up pretty well with the weird movie it plays over, so it's definitely a net positive for the score. Overall, the IMDB rating is actually pretty accurate on this one, which is probably due to the fact that it's a thinking man's movie where you've got a lot of people giving it extremely high scores to balance out the unjustifiable 2s and 3s it gets from the people who couldn't accept the premise. It's no masterpiece, but it's pretty good, and one that deserves more attention than it gets. Check it out.