Monday, June 10, 2013

Phase IV (1974)

Trippy visuals aside, there's a lot in this trailer that didn't make it to the final film.

Phase IV is a movie that someone told me about years ago, when he was on an ant interest-binge. The plot he gave me was nothing like what I actually saw, so I assumed that either it had been a long time since he'd seen it, or he thought I never would.

Years later, I used to listen to the insane "Cultural Pollution" mixes on ISRN.ORG (now defunct), and one involved a lot of the music from Phase IV. I didn't know it at the time, but I did enjoy it. It wasn't until I was on my own interest-binge—Saul Bass—that I discovered this very, very strange movie.

I'm also very sad that Mr. Bass, a gifted visual artist, did not get to do the poster for his own film. Something about that seems very, very wrong.

The jury's still out if it's a good film with really bad parts, or a bad flick with really good parts. Let's take a look at it.


A shot of space, and some spacey music. As we Tomita along, we get to see an eclipse that WOULD NEVER HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE. It looks like the sun has gotten very small and is flying between the earth and the moon, or Jupiter and Mars, or the second house in conjugation with Venus.

Somewhere, a 4th grader is bemoaning his loss at the science fair.

Whatever it is, it's freaky-deaky and the opening narration tells us that this is happening "in space" and the scientific community is falling all over themselves about it. The eclipse goes on and gets even weirder as the narrator tells us it might mean the end of all life on earth. But, the narrator warns, we never noticed the effects because it involved such a "small and insignificant for of life."


Yeah, this is the ant movie. And wow! They're some well-shot ants. If there's one great thing about this flick, it's the micro-cinematography. We get to see several ants of different species having a little "meeting". They each have a thing stuck to their foreheads, so the rest of the scene is the ants trying to get it off. Luckily, this looks like ants using sign-language to communicate. You can replicate this at home with your cat and a piece of tape (don't do that).

We follow one ant through the underground chambers, neatly lit by crystals (it was the 70s), until she gets to one particularity fat and glowing queen. Why is she glowing? I suspect she's accidentally eaten the contents of a glo-stic. I mean, you're underground, everyone's packed in tight, there's crazy music make the connection.

See the ugly, bloated mass of the elite! Power to the Proletariat!

There's a super close-up on the ant-queen's eye and we hear her breathing, then another light display. When the humans make an appearance, they better put on as good a show.

We now get to hear a letter narrated by Dr. Hubbs, who sounds like the half of Flanders and Swann that doesn't take the stairs. He tells us that the "insects" that prey on ants are disappearing. Mainly "mantises, beetles, millipedes and spiders." I know he's a doctor and everything, but millipedes and spiders aren't insects.

Timelapse of a spider getting pwned.

Long shot of a car driving through the desert. Oh, but it's hot and dusty. We get a lot of this car driving around, past signs that say GOLF COURSE and COUNTRY CLUB and PARADISE CITY. I'd call it a sprawl community, if it could muster the energy. Clothes have been left on the lines, as if it had to be evacuated super-quick. Ominous music plays.

Well, ten minutes in and we see our first humans. It's Drs. Hubbs and Lesko, our two main characters. They examine Paradise City and have the following exchange:

Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs: You did your major work applying game theory to the language of killer whales.
James R. Lesko: Well, it seemed cheaper than applying it to roulette.
Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs: Did you actually *succeed* in making positive contact with the whales?
James R. Lesko: Only with the emotionally disturbed.
Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs: How were you able to determine that?
James R. Lesko: We talked!

They walk a bit more to examine a weird thing.

Either the ants are really good at writing a grant proposal, or they have a Kickstarter.

The ants have been busy, makin' stuff in the desert. There's a strange noise whenever these stele are on screen, so I'm going to guess we're supposed to think that's the sound the wind makes as it whips by them, like a singing rain tree.

Sufficiently spooked, scientists skedaddle.

The next day, Hubbs takes Lesko to a well-watered field to show him other creepy stuff. He won't just come out and tell the guy there's creepy stuff, but wants him to "learn at his own pace." This is a really stupid move for a scientist who's worried about a threat from the ants, but if he said everything he knew, we wouldn't have a plot.

Hubbs finds a mutilated lamb with the distinctive drill-marks that indicate ant attack, as the ants have a Makita. Lesko finds another one, but it kind enough to not contaminate the scene with a cigarette. However! Our young hero does think the ground that's been cleared in this field is odd and he examines the borders.

Crop circles showed up two years after this flick came out. For reals.

It's a shame they don't have a helicopter to see where they're standing. It would mean nothing to them, as they have not seen the marks on the ants' foreheads.

And it sounds like that Aeolian harp noise isn't just for the stele. It's anytime something spooky happens. Thanks for the clue, movie.

Now, we're on the farm where those lambs were from. Farmer Eldridge is explaining how, if the ants get over a water-trap, he's going to set fire to a ditch of fuel and watch 'em all burn. There is NO WAY this could possibly become a plot complication later.

While the farmer provides some minor exposition about the evacuation of Paradise City, Lesko notices the farmer's grand-daughter riding around on a horse. Eldridge says he never got to know those "city folk" and doesn't know anything about a collapsed house. He also doesn't know anything about the "towers", but he talked to a bug guy who said it was a dry year and they get ants in dry years, unlike everywhere else on the face of the planet who get the exact opposite.

A bitter woman behind a screen door says, "He wasn't talking about those ants," and Eldridge tells Mildred to come on out. We're going to guess they're married, because he says it with a sigh.

Hubbs tells them they have to evacuate as well, but Mildred is having none of it.

Paperwork? You people from the bank?

Eldridge says it's for their own good, then looks wistfully at the girl on the horse. Yeah, it's for her protection as well. You can tell because there's flute music in the background.

In the car, Lesko asks Hubbs when the nice family will get their farm back. They drive off and then, due to poor editing, it looks like a second car follows them. The girl on the horse waves.


Hubbs explains, via voice over, that "the facility" is self-contained, except for primary power-source, which is provided via the generator in their model truck. We get a montage of a lot of 70s computer equipment that could never run off a single generator. I mean, this stuff probably needs the same amount of electricity as a small town from the 50s.

The original Death Star used the exact same kinds of switches.

This montage goes on for far too long: showing all the knobs and dials and switches and plotter-printers and telex machines and, dude...I could do a Radiohead music video with all this many feet of film. I suppose we're supposed to be impressed by it all. I just see so much junk.

Sadly, the ants are not impressed either, so nothing happens. Hubbs has to explain to someone on Skype (that had that, right?) that things are going to go over schedule and over budget because "this is not a precise business." Because, you know, it's science. They can't tell the ants to show up and do whatever it is they'd like to study. It's like the Cold War and the ants are winning just by making us spend money. I'll guess that the home office is freaking out about having to buy more gas to run that generator in the truck and that the Embargo was in full swing. It was the 70s, after all.

Lesko takes the mic and asks home office to contact a "Miss Dobson" and let her know to not take the plane to Vegas. As I doubt he's a psychic, that must be his fiancée. Hubbs spends the time looking at his cigarette profoundly.

The ants are notoriously slow on the draw.

Hubbs goes and shoots up the stele. He is a Bad Scientist and messing with his study subject. In the computer lab, Lesko listens in to the ants, like he totally knows what they're saying.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, the ants are using little bark-boats to cross the water-trap. A horse's whinny tells us the ants are messing with it, and some random guy sets fire to the ditch of fuel, which has miraculously not evaporated in all this time. Because the horse is in such obvious pain, Eldridge shoots it. The random guy tries to hustle the girl back into the house, but it's in the process of falling down. Everyone piles into a truck and they escape.

Lesko is explaining to Hubbs how he's deciphering what the ants are saying, and it's all a load of gobbledygook BS.

In the truck, Mildrid is getting weird. She sees an ant in Eldrridge's hair and attacks him, so they drive off the road.

Back to Lesko and his pseudo-science, but the lights go out because the model truck blew up.

I don't know about you, but I did this once as a kid.

Hubbs says not to worry, the backup will kick in automatically and YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME. They had a back-up generator? Why wasn't the truck the backup? This facility was obviously not designed by anyone with an engineering degree.

Hubbs presses the YELLOW button, which causes YELLOW stuff to spray everywhere outside the dome. This covers the ants, and everyone from the farm except the girl, in yellow goop. Lesko says some have gotten away, but Hubbs is overconfident and says, "Maybe they've learned something."


The next morning, everything has been spray-painted yellow. This is a pity, because now you can see the seams on the fake cactus. Lesko and Hubbs head out in some very sweaty space-suits to examine it all and look at some of the most pitiful corpses you've seen. I think Mildred actually went fetal there.

Hubbs is more interested in what happened to the truck. When Lesko notes the dead people, Hubbs is a very casual asshole scientist about it. While Hubbs tries to explain how the ants blew up the generator, Lesko gets all indignant about the human bodies. They continue to poke around in their sillysuits.

Are we not men?

There's a tarp with a hand sticking out, so let's go look at that. It's random guy, who was apparently married to some random woman (based on that ring). Hubbs forces open his random dead hand to find three neat holes and ANTS CRAWL OUT OF THEM! AHHHHHHH!

But lo! What storm cellar door yonder doth break? 'Tis but the girl, saved by such contrivance as to make her matter. While Hubbs collects some ants, Lesko collects the girl.

Everyone decontaminates and we get this scene:

While Hubbs goes on and on about what he's going to do to those ants, Lesko asks about getting the girl to safety. Hubbs really doesn't want to call anyone, because he's embarrassed about the bodies. Let's remember, Hubbs is a dick. After some more scientist vs human arguing, the girl shows up to announce she's finished eating. For that, she earns a NAME: Kendra.

Kendra looks at the collected ants and says, "They killed my horse." No, sweetie, that was Eldridge.

But, she's in shock, so she smashes the glass container the ants were in. They're on the loose now! Also, Hubbs gets bitten on the back of the hand. No idea when in that scene it happened, but it's going to be important later, so let's not dwell on it.

OK! Now we have one of the best scenes in the movie. After panning over the poisoned landscape of ants, we see one take a bit of this poison and start to drag it down a hole. Silly ant! That's poison and you have to move it with your mouth.

That ant dies, but another one comes along and it starts to drag the poison somewhere. The music here is really great (pipe organ and electric guitar), and you just know something big is happening. The second ant dies and a third comes by for this strange cargo.

The good part of the movie is interrupted by Hubbs is talking to Central Command. They suggest taking out one of the stele to get some activity from the ants. Hubbs says they'll consider it while he idly rubs his ant-bite. Central also asks about a family in the area and if he's seen them. Hubbs lies and says no.

Back to the dying ants. They're still trying to move that poison and one finally gets it to a queen. She eats it up like buttah and lays a new, yellow egg.

That'll learn 'em.

Lesko's still playing with tape-recordings of ants and ASCII art. He asks Hubbs when the helicopter is coming, and that he's sorry about that awful bite. Then he shows Hubbs a Winamp visualization plug-in for the recordings.

Then, for some reason, we get a montage of desert creatures at night: scorpion, sidewinder, horned toad, and beetle. They don't do anything for the plot or the mood; they're just there, like this paragraph.

Meanwhile, at Area 58.

The ants have been very busy through the night, making a henge of reflective outposts around the base. The sun comes up and light starts to reflect on the base. This part actually reminds me of the old game Alpha Centari, and how if you put a city at the center of the alien artifact, and then surrounded it with solar mirrors, that city would out-produce the others. I don't think that's what the ants have in mind, however.

Lesko goes to wake up Kendra, and on the way through the "hardware department" for breakfast, Kendra succumbs to the stress of it all and starts using a British dialect.

Hubbs alerts Lesko to the reflective structures outside, "On the poison strip where they absolutely cannot live." Then he zooms in so we can see one of the new yellow ants. Hubbs has also taken to wearing his jacket over his shoulder, hiding the ant-bite.

Lesko is incensed by Hubbs' glib attitude. "Why's you leave the truck out there, anyway?" Uhm, because you don't have a garage? Hubbs says "bait". He lets on that he saw the geometric pattern in the field. He really likes these crazy-smart ants. His death is going to be just awful when it finally comes, because you know it's coming.

"When's the helicopter coming?" Lesko asks. Hubbs changes the subject and goes into a "white man's burden" style tirade about the ants.

Lesko's figured out that Hubbs hasn't called for a helicopter. He threatens to make the call himself, but those clever ants have shorted the radio! Who's side are you on, ants?

Ring around the rosie. We all fall down.

It's getting hotter in the base. The giant honkin' A/C unit is being "adjusted" (they just turned the stupid knob).

Lesko mansplains to Kendra that they're going to use a sonic attack on the reflective mounds. The sound's too awful for Kendra, but it does bust up some mounds. Many closeups of ants getting shaken.

Meanwhile, in the A\C unit, an ant is trying to chew through the wires. It is watched by a mantis.

Do you have a form 27b-6?

The mantis grabs the ant and EATS ITS HEAD, but it gets grabbed from behind by another ant, who causes the mantis to fall on some electrical components and short out the A/C unit. There's a bug in the system.

We still get more footage of ants getting crushed, however, as this movie loves killin' some ants.

Hubbs isn't feeling so hot, with his nasty arm, and Kendra is trying to use a blanket to keep the magic smoke inside the A/C unit. Lesko turns on the sprinklers, because when you're surrounded by electrical equipment, the best thing you can do is stand in some water.

Now, we get one of the great scenes of this movie: the funeral.

I'm going to admit it now: this scene actually makes me a little misty eyed. It's a beautifully shot sequence with evocative music and great layout. This is is part of why I find this such a frustrating film, as it can do so well, but just coasts along the rest of the time.

As the reflective structures have been mostly destroyed, the system actually cools down enough at night for the humans to run their computers. I know the desert gets cold at night, but I haven't seen any venting on that dome, so I'm thinking it won't cool down enough.

This is also when we discover that Lesko talks when he types, so he's got to be really annoying in the office. I'm sure everyone would know his password, however. He sends the ants his translation of a parallelogram. Really, if he wanted to test their intelligence, he would have sent a triangle with sides of 3, 4, and 5, illustrating the Pythagorean theorem or a Fibonacci sequence. Seriously, kids, if you get abducted by aliens, these are two basic mathematical principles that you can use to prove you're at least half-way cultured. Try to remember them.

This image might save humanity someday.

"Mathematics is the universal language between intelligent creatures," Lesko says. "If there's an intelligence there, I want it to know there's an intelligence here."

An ant goes crawling up the sleeping Kendra's pant-leg and checks her out. Oh, this is an itchy movie. I had a bug crawl on my ankle once and now every tickle is the enemy. I don't know how she stays asleep during this. She wakes up enough to tell the ant to go away.

Daytime, and the remaining reflective structures are back to heating up the dome. Hubbs is getting weirder than normal with his swollen arm and Kendra tries to comfort him with a wet paper-towel. He shoos her away and narrates his dissertation to an invisible audience. Even in delirium, he's a pompous dick. He's also sure that Kendra is a spy and he starts to tear up the spare equipment. "I am not helpless. I will not be humiliated!" Oh, but you will. You will....

Kendra's freaked out enough she asks Lesko to hold her for a minute. There, there, human. It's OK.


It's night. There's an owl. There's a raven. There's a wilting flower. Why not?

Hubbs and Lesko have bunk-beds and Hubbs gets the lower bunk because he's the smoker. He apologizes for smashing everything up "during the heated day". Lesko's busy wondering why the ants don't just kill them. "Why play these games?" Oh, you mean like the ones that Hubbs was going to do with those ants he collected earlier? You don't remember that tirade?

Check out that ring. Looks like there's a lucky Mrs. Hubbs out there somewhere.

Hubbs starts to ramble about how every ant colony has a queen. Really, I thought everyone knew this, but must have had a privileged childhood. Actually, there may be more than one queen in a typical colony, and we've already seen several of them lined up in the first few moments of this film.

But, Hubbs is convinced there's only one and that if he could kill her, the whole colony would fall apart. Lesko is not convinced and now is just waiting for the ants to reply to his message. He's hoping the ants will decide the humans are worth keeping alive. "The war's over," he says.

Kendra screams at a thing in the dark. Hubbs turns on the lights and Lesko jokes it's just a mouse. There's a time-lapse of it getting eaten, so I guess this is the ants demonstrating their power. Hubbs says they still have their sillysuits, but Lesko adds they only have two. Kendra looks all freaked.

The plotter in the computer lab is buzzing along with the ants' reply.

The ants have not yet mastered the circle.

It's the parallelogram, but the ants have added a circle with a dot. If they'd added another circle and two more dots, then they've have their cootie shot. Lesko decides this is an intelligence test sent by the ants while some pretty good music plays significantly in the background. The circle is obviously the base, and the dot must be a person—maybe someone they want to talk to.

Kendra's worried it's someone they're mad at for harming them (quick shot of her smashing the glass container from earlier). "Would they let the others go free?" she asks.

Man, everyone thinks the dot is all about them. These folks are really self-absorbed.

Hubbs, also absorbed by something, thinks he's found the queen. There's a gleeful malice in his voice that tells you exactly what he's going to do with her once he gets to her. The guy's a regular Ahab now.

That night, Kendra slips out of the base. As she walks, barefoot, into the gloom, she sings a little hymn to herself. This is a very touching sequence, really, as a broken and powerless character takes on a responsibility that may or may not be hers to take. It kind of makes you wish you'd gotten to know her better. Ants crawl between her toes and Kendra cries out, but keeps walking. The realization that she's the strongest and most moral person in this entire movie pains you to see her go.

Or she's crazy. Either way, she's gone.

Hubbs wants to know who's been using all the grenades. Lesko looks up from his drawing and tells Hubbs he used them up himself. I don't know if Hubbs thinks he going to the store for more, but he can't put on his boots.

What this picture is missing is three socks: one for that nasty arm.

"You're going to walk out of here, tramp miles through the desert, destroy a colony of poisonous ants and a deadly queen, and can't even get your boots on? Com'on, Hubbs. Sit down."

Lesko wants to send another message, but Hubbs wants him to go out and show the ants who's boss. Lesko tells Hubbs who the dot was in the first message, and it wasn't either of the people who thought it was them. Damnit, Kendra.

Lesko finds Kendra's message: "you're free now" and I have to wonder how they didn't notice her missing. There's a door slam, and before you think that's Kendra coming back, we cut to outside, where Hubbs is stumbling around without a suit on. Or his boots.

Lesko runs out, sans suit, to haul Hubb's dumb ass back into the base. Hubbs pushes him away and staggers towards the mound where he just knows that queen is, but he's blinded by one of the remaining reflective structures. And then he falls into a hole.

He's the only one who didn't see it coming.

The pit is lined with lots of little holes, and ants peak out of them. Ants actually have very poor vision, so they must be going by smell. Ants now pour out of the holes while Lesko looks on, powerless to stop what must be a very gruesome off-camera death. I'm really glad we don't have to watch this.

Cut to: Lesko in his suit, spraying blue fog everywhere. He's pretty much lost everything at this point. He's not going to Vegas with Miss Dobson; the girl he almost got to know wandered off; the radio won't work, so he can't ask for help; the truck got blown up, so he can't just leave; and none of his findings are going to matter if he gets cooked alive in a geodesic dome. He's done. He's just out to kill some ants now.

While he does this, he wishes he could have come to an understanding with the ants. Watching someone get eaten probably killed that notion.

I really like this sequence, with the constant cross-fading of a man with his mission and his thoughts. I know I've made fun of the writing and the acting, but the way this is filmed is touching. Lesko is now consumed by Hubbs' scheme, to go out there and demonstrate that MAN will not be subservient to insects, and now that Lesko has to wear that suit--where he doesn't look human at all--makes his defeat all the more so. He's not a person anymore; he's a plan.

Lesko falls and breaks his face-plate.

Peek-a-boo! Guess who?

Lesko's really given up here. With his calculations, based on the ants' intelligence, means of communication, and ability to adapt, he figures they'll expand very quickly in the desert areas, then the rest of the country. After this "test run", the ants will know how to defeat humans. There's only one chance for humanity. Lesko has to kill the queen and stop this colony. Then, pray it didn't happen anywhere else.

Shedding his protective gear, piece by piece, Lesko makes it to the mound where Hubbs said the queen was. He slides in with a can of poison. He might die, but it's all we've got left.

There's a giant hole in the ground and Lesko drops the poison in, then slides in himself. Nice of the ants to make a man-sized hole. There's even a man-sized room (with a hole in the roof to let in the sun. How'd we miss this hole as well? Good thing he came down the other one). The sand shifts and...well, here's the ending.


Uhm, what?

This is part of why this is Saul Bass' only full-length picture. You see, he had another ending that made a little more sense, one that completed his vision for this film. The studio execs cut it and the film was a flop.

Luckily, the missing footage has been found! There's a little nudity and some disturbing images, but it really does help tie it all together.

Got all that? OK.

Please pardon the camera-wiggle here. This was taken at a film-festival where they showed the true ending. It's not on any DVD yet, so it's the best we can do. I don't know how long it will be up, so enjoy it while you can.


Danno Baker said...

I'd like to see a remake of PhaseIV, except replace the ants with cats.

Actually, I'm reminded how much this movie made me think about THEM and it's giant atomic mutated ants.

So, what was Bass doing in that ending? trying to out Kubrick Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey space baby ending?

Dr. Mila said...

Well, it's about joining with the ants. That's part of why the humans are shown in those little cubicles so much--showing how they are separated from one another.

Actually, the music at the end kinda reminds me of this:

Chris Nemec said...

I remember this one by seeing a fan tape of the MST3K version.

Christopher Sobieniak said...

MST3K does a lot to warp our views of these films!