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Published on May 10th, 2011 | by Stan


Retro Movie Review: Phase IV

So defenceless in the individual; so powerful in the mass.

Graphic designer Saul Bass (1920–1996) is best known for his iconic film posters and title sequences, the latter including The Man with the Golden Arm, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Spartacus, West Side Story, Big, Goodfellas, and Cape Fear. Though not generally known as a director, he made a couple of shorts and one feature-length film: a 1974 science-fiction oddity called Phase IV.

The film opens with a shimmery synthesiser soundtrack and a voiceover that tells us: “When the effect came, it was almost unnoticed, because it happened to such a small and insignificant form of life”. The “effect” came from a blast of energy waves caused by an obscure cosmic event. We see a few cryptic images, then a long, documentary-style montage of ants being ants. But all is not as it appears. We’re told they’re “doing things that ants don’t do: meeting . . . communicating . . . apparently making decisions.”

An entomologist and a cryptologist devote themselves to studying the ants from a remote desert research station – it’s an economical way to make a film – and the two species eventually square off in a deadly confrontation. Put simply, this is a killer-ant film, but one that could hardly be more different from the classic Them! It’s an arty, atmospheric film that pays only occasional heed to B-movie conventions, still less to commercial ones.

Phase IV has a strong visual style, and a script (from Futureworld’s Mayo Simon) that requires patience. The characters aren’t likeable and they argue a lot, whereas the ants are cooperative and creative, building monoliths reminiscent of Clarke/Kubrick’s. The film seems to sympathise with the insects, if only by adopting nature’s indifference to humans. This sense of remove gives it a subversive ambience – even a sinister one. Powerless, we watch an ecological imperative play out in microcosm, summed up in the tagline: Adapt or die.

Despite its subject matter, Phase IV rarely feels very menacing, but it has a way of getting under your skin. It’s not an action-packed crowd-pleaser but an enigmatic genre oddity likely to satisfy fans of downbeat sci-fi and siege/swarm-type films. Bass filmed a trippy ending, possibly inspired by 2001’s, which unfortunately was cut by several minutes at the distributor’s instruction. Some of the missing footage appears in the trailer, which makes the film look much more exciting than it is:

At the time of writing, the entire film is viewable on YouTube. Here’s part 1 of 9:

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About the Author

Stan is a freelance writer and editor. He blogs about the English language at Sentence first and can also be found on Twitter.

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