If, like me, you only had a passing knowledge of Saul Bass, and didn’t know he directed a feature film about hyper-intelligent ants, you’re gonna be curious about that film, now it’s on Netflix, so scope it out. If you have no idea who Saul Bass is, and you’re wondering why I’m gonna talk about an obscure seventies film, let me fill you in.
Saul Bass is known for being a Title Designer, a.k.a. he did the opening credits, and his work is phenomenal. Here’s an hour long video of title sequences he created, here’s a nice video essay about his career, and just for the sake of it, here’s my favourite of his title sequences (and here’s my favourite Saul Bass-inspired title sequence). I’m not gonna spend this whole piece fawning over Bass, but these are the reasons I was excited to see the film, also because Edgar Wright recommended the film in this video, so it was almost automatically written down in my “stuff to check out” list.
Phase IV is a fascinating film, I would personally describe it being a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jaws (which Phase IV predates by a year). Two scientists team up to study a hyper-intelligent ant colony in Arizona, and after telling a local family to evacuate, they blow up the obelisk-like ant hills. After this, things go to shit, the family didn’t evacuate, so the ants descend on them, they try to flee, but get caught up in the scientists spraying poison from their outpost, only the daughter survives. One of the scientists is bitten after the surviving girl tries to kill the ants that the scientists were experimenting on, the other scientist starts to explore communication with the ants. The ants become immune to the poison, and build mirrored ant hill to heat up the scientific outpost.
From there on out, it descends into a man vs. nature struggle, they try to radio for a helicopter, but ants got in the right circuit board, they fix the air conditioning, and use sound equipment to destroy some of the ant-hills, but the ants destroy the air-conditioning, thus making their equipment overheat and useless during the heat of day. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but it doesn’t end exactly how you’d expect it, and that’s very refreshing in this day and age. This film sells the concept of hyper-intelligent ants that want to destroy humans, by showing you shots that wouldn’t look out of place in a David Attenborough documentary (Ken Middleham who was credited with ‘Insect Sequences’, was a wildlife photographer, who also worked in documentary). Phase IV shows us ants dragging a chunk of poison to the queen, so she can create new poison immune ants, it shows use dead ants lined up, as if the ants had to take inventory of the dead, it’s amazing to look at the visual storytelling of this film being used to humanise wee creepy little ants. There’s a scene in this movie where an ant is chewing a wire in the air conditioning unit, and as the audience we’re like “oh no, he’s gonna break it”, but then a praying mantis appears, and kills the ant, oddly making the audience breath a sigh of relief at the sight of a praying mantis, but another ant comes along and pushes the praying mantis onto the circuit, causing the thing to short-circuit and catch fire. It’s bananas. If you think of this as a fucked-up sequel to A Bug’s Life, it makes both films better, so there’s that.
This film scratched an odd itch for me, as I’m one of those people who find themselves enamoured with Zardoz, it’s hard to find obscure sci fi that I like. It’s a weird rabbit hole to find myself down, I watched Barbarella not that long ago, and I’ve been slowly reading Danny Peary’s writing on cult sci fi films, so if you’ve got any lesser-known sci fi recommendations (films/books/comics/whatever), gimme a shout.