A steady, meticulous dive into all-out evolutionary struggle, Saul Bass's Phase IV is in the running for best "evil bug" movie of all time, which sounds like a low bar, and is, but I do truly mean it in the most complimentary way I could.
Directed by Saul Bass
Written by Mayo Simon
With Michael Murphy (James Lesko), Lynne Frederick (Kendra Eldridge), and Nigel Davenport (Dr. Ernest Hubbs)
Spoiler alert: moderate
The question sometimes comes up amongst friends, "Which is the best movie to ever appear on Mystery Science Theater 3000?" Not the best episode (The Final Sacrifice); the best movie. Because while God knows the vast majority of the cruel cinematic experiments that Joel and Mike and the Bots were subjected to were crap, not everything was. Naturally, I find it best, when having such discussions, to leave the Gamera films off the table: good, bad, whatever, those movies are a child's treasure, and as they are doubtless the most extrinsically popular of the MST3K experiments overall, they would somewhat spoil the game. But that still leaves a certain number, and answers range, sometimes wildly: Danger! Diabolik? This Island Earth? Moon Zero Two? Manos: The Hands of Fate? (An unlikely choice, but I bet there's somebody.)
But of their 215 runs at the B-cinema of yesteryear (counting the newer, iffier Netflix season), I think the consensus, especially amongst cinephiles of higher brow, is Phase IV. It's a bad episode, frankly—hailing from the prototype season that ran on KTMA in Minneapolis, some time before Joel Hodgson and company realized that maybe their show would be funnier if they wrote jokes. But it is one astonishing movie—an often-forgotten gem of early 70s sci-fi that exemplifies what the genre wanted to be, and what the genre could be, as it moved between the two watersheds of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. And what it wanted to be was mystical, ecological, and arty as the law allowed.
And maybe it is better than Gamera vs. Gaos, but you'll never pin me down on that.
Now, this is a deeply unfair way to begin talking about the only feature film ever directed by famed graphic designer Saul Bass, whose work throughout the 50s and 60s needs no introduction. I'm hardly one of those bitchy Kurt Vonneguts who decried MST3K for daring to riff on old movies (and, incidentally, introduce a new generation to a whole world of below-the-waterline cinema), but even I'll admit that Phase IV deserved better than to be dismissed by audiences and critics in 1974, packaged off on the cheap for television, and remembered, primarily, as one of the weirdest things ever seen on the Satellite of Love. But that's how it went, and like many of its cult that's how I came to it, too, pirating a random episode one night in college and, at its conclusion, asking myself, "what?"
We begin with a massive infodump, though an interesting one, and one that decisively sets the events of the film in the past tense, this being the first step Phase IV takes in distancing itself from its audience, and from any indication that it wanted to involve you in its narrative as an emotional participant, rather than a cold observer of facts. The first speaker we hear is James Lesko, a cryptologist, narrating to us directly in regards to an enigmatic cosmic occurrence that, initially, seemed to have no effect on Earth whatsoever; the second speaker is Dr. Ernest Hubbs, the entomologist who alone suspected what momentous changes it had wrought, and we only hear him through a recording. Their voiceovers pop up again from time to time, and it gives Phase IV an epistolary feel—and a fatalist one. So does the title card that comes up: "Phase I."
Hubbs has discovered that something has happened to the ants of the Arizona wastes, altering them on a fundamental level. The constant war between different colonies has come to an abrupt end; ants that should be enemies are working together, and it looks a lot like this epochal shift has been brought about by the genesis of some intelligence within (or between) these ants, their united colony having become an enormous thinking machine that, Hubbs knows, could soon outweigh humankind a hundred to one. He has brought Lesko, the codebreaker, out to a remote geodesic dome in the desert to test this hypothesis, and, if possible, to decipher their language. Hubbs has come prepared, also, to battle these ants should it become necessary—which of course it shall. And when battle comes, he makes some headway at first with humankind's superior poisons, but unfortunately at the cost of the panicking locals who came to seek the doctor's protection, leaving only their shellshocked granddaughter Kendra alive to join the two scientists as the ants adapt to each move Hubbs makes, and begin again.
It is, in essence, a siege film, and it is a singularly heartless siege film, pitting its "protagonists" against a constitutionally implacable foe and watching them squirm and sweat without much apparent sense of sympathy. Indeed, like Hubbs and Lesko, we're bound to underestimate their foe; and Phase IV's most effective surprises, for them and for us, come when those ants do things ants are not supposed to do. Locked down in this claustrophobic sci-fi location, cooking inside a disabling desert heat, Phase IV conjures up basic suspense easily; but it is an inordinately clever film, too, and the methods screenwriter Mayo Simon comes up with for the humans to survive the careful, methodical ants for just another day are indeed brilliant enough that it's a while before we notice, or they notice, that the ants haven't simply overwhelmed them with sheer numbers yet only because it's part of their plan.
It helps, also, that Saul Bass directs the hell out this battle. There's no need, of course, to derogate the nest of latent British film industry talent serving as Bass's collaborators—Phase IV is the MST3K movie that boasts gritty principal photography by Ken Russell's partner in belligerent absurdism, Dick Bush, and art direction by figures no less prominent than John Barry and Norman Reynolds (remember how I said this occupied the time before Star Wars? evidently, this was how Barry and Reynolds occupied their time before Star Wars).
And yet it is Bass's vision that makes Phase IV such a singular work, even though there was never any guarantee anything about it was going to be "singular" at all: the scenario is bound to recall Them! (if you're a little deeper into 50s cinema, you'll get a slight sense of The Naked Jungle and the dreaded marabunta, too). But the trick of Phase IV is that it doesn't resort to anything like the brute physical beastliness of a giant ant puppet, or (usually) even waves of regular-sized ants. It is more disconcertingly oblique than its predecessors, relying instead upon imposing but almost-abstract visual cues, like the cyclopean geometry of the towers these individually-insignificant beings have built to aerate their subterranean abodes, or upon the unsettling implication of single scouts and the uncanny point-of-view from the eyes of an ant that somehow seems to know what it's looking at. Above all, it relies on the shocked, nauseous feeling you get when you step in an anthill and realize what's inside it: a life form operating with millions of detachable parts, each a little poisonous, each a little capable of doing harm, and each adding up to something that with just a little more awareness would be a match for Earth's prevailing superorganism—us. And it takes you down to their level, too, thanks to documentarian Ken Middleham's groundbreaking microphotography; and, with the deployment of remarkably precise film editing and animal wrangling, it's all enough to give off the truly astonishing impression of arthropod acting, such as wouldn't even be rivaled until Arachnophobia sixteen years later, and would never once be rivaled again.
It aims to be very cool (and it is very cool) and very icky (and it is very, very icky), but the important thing is its effect: Bass' plan requires a lot of time spent with the ants, and while this makes the movie "slow" (and, yeah, it is also very slow), if you're digging Phase IV (and I clearly do) then what it does is to make the ants as important to the story as the humans are, and what Phase IV does most of all is steadfastly refuse to take any side. Naturally, Bass is not above punching it up, and to a certain degree had no choice (there is significantly more light in Phase IV's anthills than in reality—that is, any), though how much is unavoidable storytelling convenience and how much of it is for fun (and how much of it works) is up to the individual viewer to decide. To my eye, the clean shape and line of the underground colonies is unsettling in their very obvious design (these are smart ants, after all); and the employment of an enormous wasp outfitted with a grotesque, termite-like distended abdomen, as a stand-in for a less-impressive, realistic ant queen, was a wise and well-considered gross-out move.
Beyond the cardboard science films it recalls, then, Phase IV does still sit within a movement of its own, from grim ecological sci-fi fables like Silent Running and No Blade of Grass (with which it shares two performers), to (more specifically) the roiling hive of other angry hymenopteran movies, like Killer Bees and Allen's The Swarm—not to even mention the 1971 pseudo-documentary about the threat of organized insects, The Hellstrom Chronicle, to which I suspect Phase IV owes a significant debt. But it stands itself apart from them, too: those films are generally allegories, in some manner or another, about the Anthropocene, about "nature taking vengeance." Phase IV isn't that: it blames its ants' mutation on astronomical circumstance at least as much to remove human agency from the equation, and underline the universe's indifference, as it does to indulge in the prologue's budget cosmic spectacle. Phase IV is simply about why we exist: we can, therefore do, until we can't anymore.
Hence the humans we get are almost as much cyphers as the ants, and if the three lead performances are, overall, somewhat better-than-average (I should add, "for this kind of movie"), it's only in Nigel Davenport's perspiring, obsessed, deteriorating Hubbs that the performance is anything noticeably better than it needs to be. Yet, altogether, Davenport, Michael Murphy, and Lynne Frederick are just present enough to represent a species struggling to survive, in its strengths and its weaknesses alike.
More interesting, clearly, is what happens around them. It's every inch a designer's film: the employment of vivid solid color (yellow, particularly, though blue makes an appearance late in the game); the emphasis on architecture and habitat and mathematically-defined lines; the reduction of humans into objects and elevation of objects into subjects; an emphasis upon the arid scrublands and the optical properties of its air; that crazy, droning prog rock score (and there are few movies with more frames suited to being prog album covers than this one); and, especially, the ending sequence ultimately cut from the film over Bass's objections. Honestly, it's no more apocalyptic than the ending we actually get, which is a bizarre and satisfying one; it's not even that much trippier in the basic ideas it conveys. But it is more prone to blow your mind, descending completely into the kind of surrealism the film's been flirting with all along, telling the future of this world through crashing dissolves of mazes and faceless men and ants striding across an orange-red sky. (I'll even admit, knowing the deleted ending is supposed to be there may make me better-disposed toward the film than I ought to be, though, as it stands, it is technically external to the work.)
There's little that Bass gets wrong even in Phase IV's producer's cut, at least outside of his disinterest in his actors. Still, what he gets wrong is annoying: the farmers' deaths are probably supposed to be terrifying, and instead they're edited and hicksploitatively performed right into the muck of goofy, presumably-unintentional comedy; meanwhile, the best scene in the film, essentially a war of sound against light, is wholly intentional in the way it's broken, which makes it even more obnoxious, with a shrill siren repurposed as a weapon (that's the clever part) without any particular regard for the fact that it is awfully fucking painful for the audience to hear it, at what seems to be its actual, in-universe volume, for the four full minutes it goes on (that's the broken part).
So that's not too much to complain about, and if the aesthetic grips you, it's damned near to a masterpiece. Meanwhile, it's so unique even outside of its aesthetic that it would still be worth recommending if the dance of insects in graphic splendor wasn't your thing. For Phase IV offers one of the most alien forms of life ever brought to the screen; and, ironically, it never even had to leave the ground.