Phase IV

Phase IV (1974) movie poster

(1974) director Saul Bass
viewed: 10/21/2011

A very strange little science fiction/horror film here, from noted cinematic title sequence designer and general graphic design great Saul Bass.  It was the only feature film that he ever directed.

Avant-garde in its narrative, it takes a while to figure out exactly what this film really is.  It opens with a strange “unknown cosmic event” which influences the ants of the planet to stop fighting and to merge their goals.  The intelligence is a collective intelligence, but as actors of the elemental pieces of their landscape, they take on mankind.  The film is set in either Southern California or Arizona desert and takes quite a while before any people even show up.  The ants are real ants and the footage looks and feels often like pure documentary.

But that would be understating it considerably.  As low-budget as it is and with this strange adherence to a limited style of narrative, the film often casts some striking images, both highlighted contrasts of small ants against bright orange backdrops of the sun, high-contrast visions, and even some kind of interesting set design (the ants build these weird pipe-like towers).  It’s both unusual and incredibly effective.

It’s nothing quite like anything I’ve ever seen, but from what I’ve read, it does in some ways resemble a documentary from three years prior called The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), which mixed close-up images of insects and some weird science fiction prophecy of doom or evolution.  And for my money, though the dialogue is limited and the production not so conducive to traditional acting, this film is an earnest endeavor.  And it also somewhat represents another aspect of 1970’s science fiction that I find interesting, this less cleanly narrative style in which very little is explained to the full degree and a lot is left for sensorial interpretation.

You’d look at that movie poster and be looking for something entirely different.  If you got this film looking for horror and gore and what-have-you, you’d be disappointed.  But as a very unusual, visually striking, science fiction film about “what if ants took over the world?”, you’d be barking up the right tree.

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