Despite having had access to a cornucopia of science-fiction, fantasy and horror flicks during the blessed pre-cable days of local TV station movie showcases I only saw PHASE IV once, sometime during the late-1970's and while I thought it was okay I definitely wasn't intellectually ready for it during my adolescence (if it wasn't full of STAR WARS-style razzle-dazzle I was not likely to care all that much). Now it's out on a no-frills DVD — meaning the DVD contains nothing more than a widescreen print of the film; no commentary, no trailer, no "making of" material, no nothin' — and after viewing it at the age of nearly-forty-four I'm surprised to see PHASE IV shoot from out of nowhere to my short list of favorite science-fiction films.
The sole feature directed by famed graphic designer and movie titles filmmaker Saul Bass, PHASE IV opens with an unexplained cosmic event causing several celestial bodies to align and therefore affect the solar radiation that hits the Earth or something (it really isn't ever explained and it doesn't really matter), which causes various species of common ants to stop their natural aggression toward each other and start communicating with a goal toward unification. This unnatural state of affairs, the first of four depicted "phases" in the ants' evolution, does not go unnoticed as the ants somewhere in the American Southwest begin constructing twenty-foot-tall obelisk-like towers seemingly overnight. What the towers are for is anyone's guess (I say simple observation), but in no time they attract the attention of Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), accompanied by mathematician/cryptologist James Lesko (Michael Murphy), who sets up a research lab in a geodesic structure in the desert near the ants' towers. Once it's been determined that the ants are very much out of the ordinary, orders of evacuation are given to the few nearby residents so the testing can get underway. But when the ants don't "perform" as swiftly as desired and his government sponsors threaten to scrap the project if results are not immediately forthcoming, Hubbs destroys the towers in hope of provoking a reaction. Big mistake; the ants build more sophisticated/fortified towers that feature metallic focusable reflectors overnight and launch a full-on offensive against any humans in the area, wiping out all but one member of a family that refused to evacuate. That lone survivor, a teenager named Kendra (Lynne Frederick), gains shelter with the two scientists and the trio find themselves on the losing side in an intense war in which the tiny aggressors prove themselves more formidable than imagined ("formidable Formicidae?"). Putting those reflectors to work and sending in some soldiers to take out the lab’s air conditioning, the ants slowly raise the temperature with the dome and begin to cook the humans over a few torturous days while Lesko’s attempts at communication yield surprising results; the ants have a language — an admittedly simple one, but a language nonetheless — and could easily have killed the humans but they don’t, instead torturing them by day using a reversal of the old magnifying glass trick while granting them a nightly reprieve. But why? That answer is fascinating and more than a little cryptic when it comes, but by the time the film ends the viewer will curiously ask, “Well what happens now?!!?”
When it comes to real science-fiction as opposed to the outer space shoot-‘em-ups and disguised monster movies that pass themselves off as such, I much prefer the former for taking the intelligence of the audience as a given and providing stories that provoke thought. PHASE IV is a prime example of that and it was a pleasure to see it again, this time from a grown-up perspective. Other than Hubbs’ ill-advised demolition of the initial towers there are no pyrotechnics to be had, instead allowing the quiet events to play out to maximum suspense and interest without cheapening things with superfluous gimmickry. The seemingly gratuitous inclusion of a cute teenage girl in the mix proves vital to the tale’s heady finale and even Hubbs’ escalating paranoia/madness, a trope done to death in many lesser science-fiction films, makes perfect sense, so somehow this gripping story about a bunch of ants putting a big boot right up the ass of man is never silly or hokey. I was utterly caught up in the situation and totally bought it from start to finish, so I heartily recommend PHASE IV to viewers who aren’t afraid to let a minor classic of a science-fiction film treat them like they’re not idiots and show them something new and beautiful. It also doesn’t hurt if you, like me, are a fan of hive bugs; this movie had me rooting for the ants from the get-go because for all we know the ants’ towers could have been erected for no more sinister purpose than to get a better look at the world around them now that their intellect and perceptions had been expanded, and then that asshole Hubbs had to go and attack them for what would have been in their eyes no reason at all. I don’t know about you, but if some bearded Limey prick had done that to me and mine you can bet your sweet ass there would have been some vitriolic payback, provided I survived! HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION for grownups; it’s suitable for kids, but the under-fifteens might find it boring.