Director: Saul Bass
Script: Mayo Simon
Cast: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, Alan Gifford, Robert Henderson, Helen Horton
Running time: 73 minutes
Following some kind of weird sun-spot activity, a senior biologist notices that ants which are being monitored out in the Arizona desert have changed their behaviour, and he persuades the government to pay for a special laboratory to be set up in the desert to get a clearer picture of what’s going on.
Dr Ernest Hubs (Nigel Davenport) takes with him assistant scientist James Lesko (Michael Murphy) and they begin the study proper, carefully monitoring the ants’ behaviour. It seems that formerly disparate colonies of ants are now working closely with other colonies, as if pushing forward with some sort of world-wide ‘ant plan’ that’s to ant-kind’s advantage. The men realise that this development of a collective intelligence and cross-species hive mentality could pose a real threat to mankind’s superiority, thus leaving the scientists to ponder the choice of whether they should try and find some way of communicating with the ants or eradicating them with extreme prejudice. However, it seems that the ants are very rapidly gaining the upper-hand so is the human race running out of time?
Phase IV is the kind of film that never gets made these days, or, if it did, it would almost certainly have to be a documentary film about ants doing something very specific in a certain part of the world.
Saul Bass’s only directorial effort, Phase IV is certainly very original and quite memorable. Featuring lots of amazing real-life footage of ants, doing what ants do, (filmed by Ken Middleham), interspersed with quite a bit of hard-science talk, and some philosophy, the film is quite ‘dry’ (well, it is set in a desert!) and sedately paced, but it still manages to pull the viewer inexorably into its strange and fascinating world. Phase IV is most definitely a film that posits a post-human world and asks the question: what would that world actually look like without us in it?
To me the film is a little reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in tone, plus the strangely constructed ant monoliths further cement that surface connection. Also, as the film progresses and different ‘phases’ are reached, its overall plot structure seems similar too. And the ending gets a little trippy, as with 2001, especially in the original much longer ending, which is included on the disc as a worthwhile extra – but more on that later.
There aren’t many characters in the film, but the ones that are there are markedly different in nature, from Dr Hubs, the chief scientist, who really just wants the data to support his ‘out-there’ hypothesis, no matter what the human or environmental cost, through to the young woman, Kendra, who they rescue after her parents’ farmstead is attacked by the ants, and who later feels that she wants to make amends to the ants and therefore offers herself up in self-sacrifice for the greater good.
The acting is all top-notch and the photography, by Dick Bush (sounds like a porn name!), is very good too. Plus, the music, by Brian Gascoigne, adds to the film’s general weirdness as well, but in a good way.
Seeing as Phase IV is such an accomplished film it seems a shame that Saul Bass never directed another feature film, although I suspect that Phase IV would have been a hard sell at the time and he’d have struggled to get investment a second time, more’s the pity.
101 Films is distributing Phase IV on Blu-Ray and there are plenty of extras on-board:
- Commentary with film historian Richard Holliss and The Darkside editor Allan Bryce. Both writers have different approaches to the material – Holliss is more serious while Bryce injects humour into proceedings on a regular basis;
- The Original Saul Bass ending (plus optional commentary with Richard and Allan again) (18 mins) – We can see more dialogue with the girl prior to her heading out to face the ants scene and lots of trippy footage of people running through an ant created maze and lots of abstract stuff that would sit nicely on some progressive rock album covers;
- An Ant’s life: Contextualising Phase IV – (20.5 mins) – Writers Jasper Sharp and Seth Hogan discuss the film and its fellow bed-mates including the likes of Andromeda Strain and Them! They also discuss Saul Bass’s influence as a graphic designer and film credits designer.
On Disc Two we have a collection of Saul Bass’s short films including:
Why Man Creates (1968) (24.5 mins) – This is made up of seven sections, these being:
The Edifice – a simple cartoon, which takes us through the different ages of man;
Fooling Around – Some random shots of pedestrians star-jumping near some traffic lights;
The Process – A guy creating a tableau out of large building blocks;
The Judgement – The audience;
A parable – A ping pong ball escapes the manufacturing process and goes for a bounce around;
A Digression – Cartoon snails talking;
The Search – Improving crop yield and the Big Bang theory.
The Searching Eye (1964) (18 mins) – We follow a small boy as he explores his local coastal area; featuring some interesting time-lapse footage and slow-motion shots
Bass on Titles (1977) (34 mins) – Bass talks about his career and takes us through the thought processes behind some of his most well-known title sequences, which we also get to see play out in their entirety, including The Man with the Golden Arm, West Side Story and Seconds.
Quest (1984) (30 mins) – A sci-fi short, written by Ray Bradbury, which is about an alternative civilization where humans mature and die, all within 8 days.
Notes on Popular Arts (1978) (20 mins) – A man fantasizes about being the hero in a TV series, while a girl becomes a woman and goes on a voyage of discovery, and a boy becomes his own made-up super hero.
The Solar Film (1980) (9.5 mins) – A look at solar energy with a Tubular Bells like soundtrack.