Jun 18, 2016

Meet Your New Insect Overlords: Saul Bass' Phase IV (1974)

The result of super-ant efficiency

While I was at the park one day with my daughter, we found a black column of ants racing along the top of a stone ledge. There was hundreds of them. If you let your eyes blur a little, they looked like a single pulsing line, weaving smoothly back and forth.

I thought how remarkable it was that all these creatures were coexisting in perfect, peaceful efficiency. Though they scrambled over each other and gave each other no space, you never saw them stopping to fight or, really, stopping at all. They were completely focused on the task at hand. This is a skill humans have yet to master. In fact, we may not be capable of it at all, or even want to be.

Structures built by the evolved ants

That's the basic horror of movie credit sequence king Saul Bass' sole feature directorial effort, Phase IV. The leisurely-paced sci-fi features ants who are somehow altered by a cosmic happening, so that they evolve more quickly and achieve hive mind, a sort of collective consciousness, that gives the creatures the power to build structures, create ever more powerful societies, and overtake every other living creature, including the human race. Their chief previous weakness: fighting between different species of ants, suddenly ceases to be an issue and they all begin to work together. Now nothing can stand in their way, because they possess the perfect ability to organize and execute tasks without interruption.

The queen watches a lowly subject. Why didn't this girl grab her when she had the chance?

Just like a gaggle of blank-faced zombies, the ants' advantage over people isn't so much their technical abilities as the trouble they save because they are not distracted by emotion. As they are portrayed in the film, it is implied that perhaps these insects possess some sort of feeling, at one point they conduct a sort of funeral service for fallen comrades, but even then, everything is approached with cool efficiency and a complete lack of the messy disorder human emotions can bring. You're never sure if it is grief or a sense of duty that inspires their actions.

A funeral, ant style

The action in Phase IV alternates between the orderly underground world of the ants and a pair of scientists who are studying them from a sealed dome-shaped lab in the Arizona desert. In an area where all other humans have fled or been killed by the ants, they alternate between spraying the ants with yellow, sticky poison and trying to decipher the urgent messages they appear to be sending them. They are joined by a teenage girl who is the only surviving member of a local farm family that was attacked by the ants.

Another trouble-making ant

It never seems like the scientists are entirely clear as to what they should be doing. They don't hesitate to kill thousands of ants at a time with the easy fix of poison, and yet they also spend considerable time mulling over those messages. It never seems to occur to them that they shouldn't be angering this suddenly mighty force. They are accustomed to looking down on insects, and killing them at will. That attitude leads to their downfall.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Phase IV is its so-called lost ending, which was not so much lost as rejected and forgotten by Paramount Studios. This bizarre series of images shows exactly what the ants end up doing with the remaining humans, and it is a fate both disturbing and fascinating. The footage was rediscovered in 2012 and shown as an alternate ending at select screenings of the film, one of which I saw at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2013.

An image from the "lost ending" that ended up in the film's trailer
I've heard some grumbles that this remarkable sequence is on the pretentious side and a bit too heavy-handed with its message, but that won't matter to any fan of Saul Bass. It is the perfect culmination of his many years of visual experimentation and innovation, and it's presented like a never-ending acid trip. You can see how a room full of movie executives may have been put off by such a bold vision, but the marketing team seemed to disagree, as many of the images in the film's official trailer come from that sequence. While there don't seem to be any official DVD or Blu-ray releases that include the ending, it's easy enough to find online, and well worth a look.

Even sans the bizzaro ending Phase IV didn't make a splash at the box office. That's not too surprising. It's hard to imagine a moody, slow sci-fi film without big scares or effects, or even a charismatic star or two, attracting mainstream audiences. This was a film destined to attracted a cult following, which it has over the years. If you can accept it on its own low-key terms, and view it in a patient mood, it can be a rewarding watch. It definitely makes you afraid of messing with ants, and all without blowing them up to enormous size or resorting to cheap thrills and jump scares.

This is my entry in the Nature's Fury Blogathon, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis. Check out the site for more entries.


  1. Excellent review! Great description at the beginning. I've seen Phase IV a few times, and it keeps getting better with each successive viewing. It's a reminder that good science fiction is about ideas, not elaborate special effects (although the amazing macro photography certainly helps the story).

    Thank you for your wonderful contribution to the Nature's Fury Blogathon!

  2. First saw this on TV during hot summer afternoon sometime in the late 70's and have never forgotten it. It's one of those that seems to grow on you more and more with each viewing.
    I hope that we can get the alternate ending released on home video at some point (too bad it could have been worked out for the Olive blu-ray release)

  3. Thanks Barry! I do agree that this film grows on you. I don't think I would have liked it as well as I did the first time if I hadn't seen it in a theater with that crazy ending. Thanks for thinking up such a great blogathon theme.

    Dick--I was so excited when that Olive release came out, because I felt certain it would have the alternate ending after it had made the rounds in theaters. I suppose if it was released at all, there's still a chance to see it on a home video release some day. While I'm glad I saw this in a theater the first time, I do think this is the perfect film to randomly discover on TV. It's got the best aimless afternoon vibe.

  4. Wow. What a great post on a film that I remember seeing years ago. I may need to watch it again after reading this.

    Don't forget to check out my contribution to the blogathon.


  5. I've not seen this, but it sounds interesting. Thanks for the heads up re: watching it on its own terms.

    You know, I have never really trusted ants. Yes, they are small, but they are clever, and as a team they can accomplish amazing things, as you pointed out.

    Great review!

  6. Thanks! Yeah, I have real issues with any animal whose face I can't see. When I was a kid, my dad had a sci-fi book called City where ants become similarly powerful, so this idea has been freaking me out for a long time.