Notable as the only feature-length film directed by iconic title and graphic designer Saul Bass (Psycho, West Side Story, The Big Country, The Man with the Golden Arm), Phase IV is one of those films that kind of remains burned into people's memories as a trippy experience than a dramatically rewarding sci-fi entry about an inter-stellar event that results in Man losing control of his planetary dominion to ants.
Why disparate ant species suddenly begin to cooperate and kill every big animal (and disable a Range Rover) isn't really explained beyond a new kind of self-preservation, and the film's finale (everyone who's seen this film recalls one specific image involving sand and a buried figure) doesn't make much sense either, in spite of some blubbering naration about new plans for Man, and an unknown destiny.
As a director, Bass didn't seem to be concerned too much with dialogue or performances, and he had more fun designing montages and events that are still excitingly arresting, and probably a bit taboo today.
The macro photography consists of real bugs sometimes subjected to real trauma in graceful slo-mo (in spite of a good anamorphic transfer, Legend Films' DVD sadly doesn't contain any production notes), but Bass and his photographic team also managed to capture little behavioral moments that predate Microcosmos (1996); the montages are so tight in capturing sentient ants that one feels sympathy for them; even the massive queen ant who lays a stream of eggs from her giant tail section (clearly an inspiration for James Cameron's Aliens) is compelling for her own efforts to sustain the species as it attempts to rout out the scientists from their metal base.
Where the film really gets wobbly is in the character of Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), who's an arrogant ass and stays one-dimensional regardless of what happens around him. Granted, Hubbs' persona would cause him to refuse any outside help or have any compassion for the young farm girl named Kendra the pair bring into their base, but without any backstory or introspective moments, he remains a loathsome character to the end.
James Lesko (Michael Murphy) fares the best, and he forms a more humane buffer between the cold, militaristic ants who build surreal pylons around the base, and Hubbs' desire to glefully exterminate what he doesn't like. Lesko also offers a bridge between the humans and the insect world by discovering a means to communicate with the ants, and to some extent anticipate or rationalize their behaviour, but he too is leadened with weak dialogue, and a contrived attraction to Kendra (Lynne Frederick) that Bass and screenwriter Mayo Simon setup as an Eve figurine.
As Kendra, Frederick has the right physical vulnerability for a young girl still traumatized by the recent killing of her extended family (partly due to Hubbs' aggravating the ants), but while Murphy and Davenport make better of their sour dialogue, Frederick reveals she really can't act, let alone emote convincingly (which the ants all manage, using pure instinct and curiosity for the elaborately lit sets employed by Bass).
The film's strengths lie in the visuals, as well as the clever electronic score by Brain Gascoigne (with Desmond Briscoe and David Vorhaus), with textures beautifully complimenting Bass' fixation on clean visuals and geometric shapes (as in pure circles and orbs, or the aberrant earth pylons the ants use to see above-ground activities). There's also Bass' own organized geometric patterns, extended to the sets designed by John Barry (Star Wars, Superman), such as a pitfall that dooms a character, and the waves of ants and soil that surge from ordered cylindrical holes carved into the pit walls.
The cinematography by Dick Bush (soon to lens William Friedkin's Sorcerer) is first-rate, and exploits the isolated desert location where a housing development was halted, and now disintegrates as the ants devour the skeletal homes into rubble.
It's still a vaguely drawn rumination of man's tenuous dominion over Nature, but trippy fun delivered in a compact running time.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan