Friday, February 24, 2012

Let Us ALL Welcome Our Insect Overlords

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.

High Points
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.
Low Points
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

Lessons Learned
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.


  1. This film seems to be suffering somthing of a rivival amongst the cult critic circuit at the moment and it's a film which I saw only once as a kid, yet parts of it I still remember now such as the ant funeral and the ant hills being shot down.
    The part which still haunts me though is that darn ant pit death, which creeps me out still thinking about it, while furthering my theory that it's usually films with Age ratings (12A, 15, PG13 ETC) that have the most mentally scaring images.
    Good review and will hopfully have somthing to contribute to the shortening soon, so please don't think I have forgot about it, it's more my lack of review organisation that's to blame. :)

  2. I think the revival stems from the recent (and apparently long-awaited) DVD release, although it's SERIOUSLY sad that it's bare bones.

    I can see this being seriously terrifying to kids. I love how you never really know who to side with. If I were a kid--okay, and even now--I felt so dang bad for the ants!

    You've still got a week for The Shortening! I'm going to do one more link roundup on the 29th. Hope to see something!

  3. This reminds me of the John Wyndham book Web. Except from what I've read and heard, that wasn't as well put together as Phase IV, seeing as how Wyndham came down with a nasty case of death before he could revise it! Hence, the book's only about 100 pages, has an apparently aprupt ending, the character who is cogent is named 'Camilla Cogent', the book's just called 'Web', and stuff like that.

  4. Having read Day of the Triffids, I could see Wyndham writing an interesting ant thriller. Don't know how worthwhile such an early draft sounds though!

  5. I love John Wyndham's books. Triffids was excellent though my favorite is probably "The Kraken Wakes", which offers some freaky observations about life in a world of global climate change and rising sea levels. It's also noteworthy for being one of the few books EVER which features a husband and wife as protagonists and manages to make them interesting, dynamic, fun, and very real-feeling in how they relate. It was actually kind of wonderful to read an alien invasion novel that did not have "Hero and heroine get together" as the B subplot of the story.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed Phase IV! I saw it as a kid on the late show, maybe in the late 70's at age 10-12, and it weirded me out. I remember being very confused and wondering who we were supposed to side with, seeing as how I was used to THEM! as my killer ant film of reference, where the heroes and villains are clearly defined. In later years I really came to appreciate how Phase IV gives us a chance to look at how a totally different species could replace us, operating under an entirely different type of thinking and intelligence. The ants don't seem to bear us any ill will, we're just impediments.

    I've occasionally wondered if there was any intentional political allegory there regarding capitalism vs communism. For that matter, the ants are a bit Borg-like too.

  6. Actually Web is a killer spider thriller. The ant overlords are in just as much touble as we are! haha!

  7. Trever: I'll definitely put it on my library list. I liked Triffids, but I don't know how much of that was my post-apocalyptic obsessions vs. WYndham's writing style.

    Agreed on how great the absence of good/bad species is. It really does make the film something truly unique and complicated. I don't know if there are any other political implications. There certainly could be, but I think I'm just not equipped to figure them out. Another reason why the bare bones release is such a shame.

    And damnit Chris, now I really do wish he'd finished it!

  8. I just mentioned political overtones since that was very much how the USSR was presented to us in school in the 70's - This sort of vast, completely alien, godless communal monolithic hive intelligence that was slowly advancing over the world and absorbing everything else into itself. Most of the time when I think of "anti-commie" allegory movies, I think of 50's SF, but Phase IV did make me wonder.

    Re: The Kraken Wakes. It stands out for me in two ways - One, it's one of the most cheerful apocalypse novels you'll ever read (The hero and his wife maintain admirable stiff upper lips and jolly attitudes through the whole thing, even when they're rowing past the upper tip of a sunken Big Ben under hundred foot seawater rises). And Two, it's a very unique alien invasion. None of this war machine stuff. The aliens invade via deep sea, landing in the ocean and going to the bottom and being unnoticed for years, before they begin monkeying with the ice caps to cause global flooding to cleanse the land masses. It's an interesting idea because the aliens do not fight us directly at all, they simply tweak the planet and use ecological impact against us. My wife really liked it too, so it's not just a 'Boys' Own Adventure' book - Much less so than Triffids, for instance.

  9. Damn! My library only has the book for 'in library us.' Guess I'll have to put it on my amazon list for when I need to bulk up an order for free shipping. Eventually, I shall read!

    And that's an interesting point about the Sovietness of the ants. It totally does fit in a lot of ways. Lots to consider.

  10. I second the Kraken Wakes recommendation!