What’s shorter than an ant? A flea I suppose, but fleas are dog-eating jerks without any redeeming factors (other than inspiring long ago plagues that can occasionally breed good film material).
But let’s get back to ants, those ubiquitous, hard-working, architecture-loving, slave-holding monarchists. When I put out the call for recommendations that suited The Shortening, I got some peachy picks. Today’s entry comes courtesy of Trever over at the fine film blog Kentucky Fried Popcorn, who pointed me towards 1974’s sci-fi oddball Phase IV.
Quick Plot: Something strange is happening in the cosmos, and though experts predicted everything from climate change to earthquakes, the only real effects seem to be felt in ant colonies. Our narrator explains how those six-legged soldiers of different species have been holding international conferences to communicate, something "ordinary ants" just don't do.
This might sound dry and scientific, and while much of Phase IV is, I shouldn't go any further before explaining how we actually see this unfold. Director Saul Bass (better known as a famed graphic designer who created title sequences for Psycho, The Man With the Golden Arm, and much more) works with actual nature footage to detail the development of the ants, with extreme closeups on a rainbow of little guys sitting in a circle and nodding their antennae at one another. It's kind of adorable.
Also, pretty darn impressive. It's impossible to watch Phase IV without wondering how some of the footage was gathered and when you see the massive ant army funeral complete with perfectly placed lines of tiny corpses surrounded by their mourners, you'll see what I mean. The biggest shame of Phase IV is that the film doesn't get a single DVD extra. Considering both the plot science and behind-the-scenes mystery, it's one of the most frustrating DVD releases I've seen in recent years.
But back to The empire of the ants! (but not, you know, The Empire of the Ants). Their behavior sparks the interest of one Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), an entomologist, and his mathematician assistant James (our narrator, played by Michael Murphy). The pair head to the Arizona desert to investigate from a big scary Epcot Center-like facility while southwestern ants build 2001-ish monoliths and eventually, drive a family out of their home.
The fleeing farmers find Hubbs' digs just as the scientists release a deadly pesticide into the air with the hopes of wiping out the approaching ants. All the humans--save for a pretty and bland young woman named Kendra--crumble to their death covered in a yellow dust.
Oddly enough, this doesn’t upset Kendra nearly as much as seeing her horse attacked by ants. Remember that ‘this’ refers to her family dying painfully from contaminated air released by the scientists she’s now bunking with, but you know...we’re all individuals.
Except the ants, who now seem to be operating under a hive mind. James is tasked with uncracking their code of communication while Hubbs becomes dangerously obsessed with their case, refusing to leave their not-so-secure bunker even after he’s bitten in a way that swells his fist into the size of volleyball. Kendra, meanwhile, walks around looking spooked until she has a mysterious conversation with a spunky escapee.
Said fugitive ant is, well, as awesome as an ant could be. We’re talking Honey I Shrunk the Kids awesome, only in a less “I’m Going To Help Children” way and more “Let’s Eff These Humans UP!” kind of style. The little ant that could--let’s call her Cindy, just cause--has some great adventures in the lab. While the menfolk are out doing scientific things like send a painful sound pitch over the desert, Cindy watches her big sister attempt to chew through the power cord only to be thwarted by a guard praying mantis.
Cindy, however, is a smart cookie (eater). The little lass succeeds in pulling the praying mantis onto a live wire, setting the security guardette on fire and silencing the signal.
Isn’t that cute?
Phase IV is a strange film, and I mean that in the best of ways. Although its premise and time should put it squarely in the Nature Fights Back subgenre, it’s far headier and more ambitious than something like the goofy (but amazing) Frogs or Day of the Animals. In fact, it’s far more appropriate to put it on a double bill with the similarly smarter-than-its-peers The Incredible Shrinking Man. Both films explore the relationship of man to his world, more specifically, how that relationship is altered when one of the two finds some sort of new awareness. Phase IV is actually more subtle about this, leaving most of the philosophical conclusions up to us. It’s pretty amazing how far some advanced micro-camerawork of the natural world coupled with an ethereal score can take the audience.
Though this might turn off some viewers, the lack of human melodrama helps to keep Phase IV’s tone pointedly clinical. Trust me, this is a good thing.
Phase IV is such a strange experiment that apparently would have been even stranger if Bass had his stamp on the final cut. Word on the Internet Super Highway has it that Bass had originally planned a surreal montage to close things out, something that might have been gnarly but tragically, the lazy DVD release is bare bones of that or ANYTHING discussing this weird little gem
People get killed sometimes
The best kinds of games are serious
Ants are amazing creatures and we should do whatever they tell us. WHATEVER THEY TELL US!!!
Inevitable ‘I Am Seven’ Realization
“What does it mean? A circle...with a dot?” our hero wonders with full earnestness. Please excuse my second grade medical diagnosis that duh, dude's got a cootie shot
Phase IV is a different kind of film, a smart sci-fi with an ambitious script (by Mayo Simon) and genuinely unique approach. Some viewers might be put off by the film’s cold style, but I found it refreshingly different. The DVD nudity makes it more a rental than a buy, but raise six glasses with tiny arms to the hopes that it might eventually get its due treatment. Like a hard-working colonist eating poison for her queen, it deserves better.