Written by: Mayo Simon
Directed by: Saul Bass
Starring: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick
It really bums me out that the current generation will know the SyFy Channel as nothing but purveyors of awful Asylum movies and stupid ghost hunting shows, not to mention that condescendingly idiotic misspelled name. Believe it or not, kids, there was a time not that long ago that the Sci-Fi Channel fucking ruled. I used to all but beg my parents to go on weekend motorcycle trips so I could stay at my grandma and grandpa Clark's house, because they had one of those enormous satellite dishes that you had to aim at different coordinates to pick up different packages of channels grouped into “galaxies”. Yeah, TV used to be a lot more fun. It felt like you were doing science when you tuned in to Space: 1999 or a nature documentary back when the Discovery Channel used to have those instead of reality shows about rummage sales or whatever bullshit it is they do now. I got to see so much great stuff at their house. I remember when the Sci-Fi Channel launched, and for days they ran this weird loop that looked like some kind of spaceship console and a voice that kept saying, “Prepare for invasion.”
Then, when I was 13, the dream came true and mom and dad sprang for a dish. Granted, the technology had advanced a great deal by that time and it was just a boring little plastic thing bolted to the roof, but still, the stuff I used to have to make plans to visit the grandparents to see was now at my fingertips. I remember the day we went to the installation company to order the package, they had a big screen TV in the lobby that happened to be tuned to Sci-Fi, and Destroy All Monsters was on. I'm pretty sure I asked them if it was possible to get the thing hooked up immediately, as that particular Godzilla flick had eluded me up til then. My head spun with the possibilities.
That summer was a heady time. It seemed like every week was a different themed marathon. All five Planet of the Apes movies; Peter Boyle hosting a week of Godzilla movies, a couple of which I had never seen; Saturday mornings populated first by bizarre, insane anime and later by Mystery Science Theater 3000, and oh the revelation that was, not to mention Joe Bob Briggs's MonsterVision on TNT. Then there was the week of killer bug movies, day and night. There were a lot of excellent movies that week, but by far the one that made the strongest impression and stuck with me all these years was tonight's movie, Phase IV. It was one of the first hard science fiction movies I'd seen, and was my introduction to the 70's downer ending. The sparse shooting locations in Kenya, coupled with the spectacular micro-cinematography by Ken Middleham and director Saul Bass's distinctive visual style, give the movie a unique atmosphere.
Some type of bizarre cosmic event involving the alignment of several celestial bodies and a spectacular light show grabs the attention of the whole world, with the exception of one man. Entomologist Dr. Ernest Hubbs has been looking not at the sky, but at the ground, where species of ants from all corners of the Earth have begun communicating and working together to conquer ecosystems all over the planet. Never mind the pretty lights in the sky, something much more urgent and terrifying is taking place right beneath our feet. Together with game theorist James Lesko, he sets up an isolated research center in the middle of the Arizona desert to study the ants' behavior and tactics, and try to communicate with them. The base is set up next to a series of geometrically perfect towers of unknown purpose, and after a couple of weeks of inactivity from the ants, Hubbs is threatened with being shut down by his bosses. So of course he does what any good scientist would, and blows up the towers with a grenade launcher to provoke his subjects.
The ants' retaliation is two-pronged, both blowing up the scientists' truck and generator, and attacking the farm of a family of holdouts near the research base. They herd the family toward the base, and as the base is hermetically sealed with no windows, Hubbs and Lesko have no idea the family are outside seeking their help when they blast the land for hundreds of yards in every direction with highly concentrated yellow pesticide foam. Upon leaving the airlock in the morning to collect specimens, they discover not only thousands of dead ants, but three dead people and one alive but in shock, hiding in the cellar of an abandoned house nearby – the farmer's granddaughter, Kendra Eldridge. With the surrounding area evacuated and help hundreds of miles away, the only thing the two scientists can do is take her back to the laboratory and hope she doesn't die on them. Kendra recovers just fine, but picks the moment Hubbs begins to separate his few living specimens for testing to start walking around and talking. She sees the ants and freaks out, smashing a table full of glass boxes and tubes, and setting all the ants free. Hubbs hurries everyone into the next room and floods the contaminated compartment with poison gas, but not before he got stung by one of them, and his hand is already starting to swell.
Meanwhile the ants, in one of the coolest sequences in the movie, have taken samples of the yellow pesticide back to their queen (not actually an ant, but a pepsis wasp fitted with a fake abdomen, and wouldn't you have loved to sit in on that makeup session?), who eats it and starts laying yellow eggs, which hatch yellow ants immune to the pesticide. It's such a neat sequence because we see several different worker ants lugging the glob of hardened foam through the nest and dying from exposure to the poison, only to have the labor picked up by another ant, who drags for a while and dies, and so on, until the last one collapses at the feet of the queen with its deadly burden. The yellow ants swarm into the toxic land around the laboratory and build more towers, this time shorter and with mirrored surfaces aimed at the lab. Apparently these ants have a highly developed sense of irony. The homemade heat ray starts cooking the humans trapped in the dome, and when one of the ants blows up the air conditioner, the temperature quickly rises beyond the point where the other systems can function. Without the computers, Lesko can't continue working on a method of communication, and Hubbs, who is suffering hallucinations from the ant venom and whose hand is so swollen he can't even put his boots on, is in no condition to help.
Lesko manages to shatter a few of the towers with ultrasound, but he doesn't get enough of them before the systems all shut down. For a few hours each night, the temperature drops enough to run the equipment. Kendra decides they want her and wanders off, while Hubbs and Lesko argue about whether to try to keep communicating or just blow up the distant hill where Hubbs believes the queen lives. It's hard to argue sense with a man who can barely remember his own name, and Hubbs blunders out the door into a pit trap and is immediately swarmed over by thousands of ants. All his options exhausted, Lesko grabs a hazmat suit and a tank of pesticide and heads for the queen's lair. What he finds when he gets there is not what he expected, and it has big implications for the fate of mankind.
This movie has been favorably compared to Colossus: The Forbin Project and The Andromeda Strain, and it definitely deserves to keep such lofty company. If you're looking for action, look elsewhere. Phase IV is all about watching people doing science, combating a foe that they don't fully understand, and that is always a step ahead of them. Lots of twiddling dials and squinting at readouts and frowning. If you're like me, however, you'll find it captivating. There may not be many exciting moments, but there are never any boring ones either. There's something about seeing science in action that is fascinating in a way violence and explosions will never be, and if you have a decent attention span and a few brain cells to rub together, this flick is a rare treat. I was reading an interview with Steve Thompson (writer of several episodes of Doctor Who and Sherlock) recently, and he said that he had watched Blade Runner with his son just before the interview, and it struck him how slowly paced the movie was, and that brilliant though it is, the studio today would have insisted Ridley Scott make it move faster. While we still get some cerebral science fiction – just look at Europa Report – and the ratio of thoughtful and deliberate SF movies has always been on the low side compared to loud, fun, dumb SF – there has certainly been a trend toward increased stupidity. After all, even most of the loud, fun, dumb SF movies of past decades have had a few big ideas at their core. Now even someone of Ridley Scott's stature can't keep the studios from turning their big ideas into Prometheus. These days you don't get much intellectual entertainment outside the independents, and you certainly would never see one of the majors ponying up to release a virtually actionless movie about people doing math at ants.
The real stars of the show, though, are the ants. Ken Middleham also did the micro-cinematography for The Hellstrom Chronicle, so he knows his way around a bug, and the things he captures with his camera are little short of amazing. My favorite of the bunch is a yellow ant with a distended bright green translucent abdomen, who appears to portray a caste specialized for battlefield tactics and strategy, and works alongside the drones, directing the assault on the humans from the front lines. I'm not sure what kind of ant it is [antracist]there are rather a lot of different kinds, after all, and they all look more or less the same[/antracist], but my guess is Anoplolepis gracilipes or maybe Acanthomyops interjectus based on pictures. The green abdomen is likely a special effect, achieved by having the ants gorge on colored sugar water.
At one point early on, Hubbs and Lesko are examining a bizarre pattern the ants have created in a field, and as Phase IV predated the first appearance of hoax crop circles in the UK by several years, so maybe instead of aliens the original pranksters were trying to get people worked up over an invasion of superintelligent ants!
Mayo Simon had written and Saul Bass shot a very different ending for the movie. Originally Lesko's trip to the ant colony was followed by a four-minute-and-change montage showing what life in the world of the ants would be like. The studio put the kibosh on that, and made them change it to the more vague and ominous ending it has now. Most of the time studio interference is to the detriment of a movie, but in this case I think it was the right decision. I've included the original montage ending so you can judge for yourself, but considering the serious tone of the rest of the movie, I think the montage is too artsy and goofy to be a satisfactory finale.
If you like your science fiction with a heavy dose of intellect, you can't do much better than Phase IV. It's a unique take on the end of the world, with loads of atmosphere, that inimitable 70's grimness, and some fantastic insect footage. It's an under-appreciated classic of the genre that deserves to be much better known.
This review is part of the It's the End of the World As We Know It roundtable. The last week of 2013 we'll be taking a look at ways the world comes to an end, and the first week of 2014 we'll wallow in some post-apocalyptic wastelands. Admittedly we're almost a decade and a half late with this gimmick, but screw it. It's our party, we'll procrastinate if we want to. Check the links below for entries from my partners in cine-crime.
Checkpoint Telstar: Seeking A Friend for the End of the WorldThe Terrible Claw Reviews: Genocide
Micro-Brewed Reviews: Invisible Invaders
Micro-Brewed Reviews: Invisible Invaders