When a film buff thinks of Saul Bass, what does he or she think of? Janet Leigh’s fatal shower? The spiro-graphic opening of Vertigo? While often tasked with the former—designing key sequences—he is probably best remembered for the latter: creating such iconic title sequences as Anatomy of a Murder and North by Northwest; atmospheric openers building the mood and even propelling the plot in a dramatic manner far beyond the scope of what was considered the “traditional” credit sequence.
Which is interesting: his only feature directorial credit, 1974’s Phase IV, does not contain a title sequence.
This is perhaps intentional: the man who pioneered the title sequence as Art eschewing it entirely in his move to director. And this would certainly not be the only polarizing aspect of a widely neglected film that is equal measures thoughtful and mainstream-matinee-silly.
Phase IV opens with a cosmic event—the first phase in some extraterrestrial development of unclear origins or purpose. The film refrains from even a title card, instead dividing the film into these “phases.” From the opening shot of the cosmos labeled “Phase I,” Bass moves to an underground world—from the cosmos to the microcosmic—of the tunnels and lairs of ants. Much time is spent here with beautiful, lingering footage shot by wildlife photographer Ken Middleham. His close up photography examines the ants and their universe—quickly revealing this unseen civilization to be one of organization and intelligence. Far from treating this ant colony like something from one of A.I.P’s giant insect pictures such as Empire of the Ants, Bass’ choice of a true wildlife photographer allows him to set a meditative tone with contemplative pacing which feels more at home on a walkabout with Nicolas Roeg than with science fiction schlock.
Through the voiceover we learn of behavioral changes in the ant populations, such as a decrease in animals and insects predatory to ants, illustrated onscreen with a horde of ants uniting to attack and destroy a mantis. This footage is effective because the bulk of it is real wildlife photography. It is hard to discern what was simply documented and what was created with effects and editing. We buy into this foreign world: one of beauty and order; sense and structure.
This gets interrupted by the arrival of humans, ghostlike (documented with an out-of-focus telephoto lens—the image wavering and rippling under the heat of the sun’s rays), penetrating the ethereal world with car engines and ruckus. We are ten minutes into the picture when they arrive. Bass keeps the human contact limited—two leads, a scientist and a mathematician (played by James Lesko and Michael Murphy, respectively)—one sympathetic and one less so. Supporting characters are limited to one family that refuses to leave their home in the effected zone overrun by ants, and they are there only to illustrate the doctor’s questionable ethics and give the mathematician a would-be romantic interest late in the film.
The scientific duo has arrived to develop a spray that will contain and destroy an ant infestation in a barren Arizona town. They quickly encounter geometric crop circles and large architectural ant towers—both signs of evolved, intelligent life. It seems the ants may have developed a hive mind and survival instincts.
The plot dynamic of this duo—crazed veteran scientist goes mad, forcing the young neophyte to stop him for good and all--is both the downfall of Phase IV, as well as its fulfillment in being a cheap-o 70’s picture. This introduces the film’s core paradox: a killer ant movie that is equal parts silly and insightful. This dynamic might explain the flick’s ability to quickly disappear after flopping hard at the box office in 1974: those that went to check out the B-movie everyone thought it was were quickly thrown off by its art house sentiment and at times almost Tarkovskian (yes, Tarkovsky in an ant flick) poetic meditation on nature and intelligence with which Bass imbues the first half of his film; and those that fell in with the movie early on probably left the theatre with a bitter taste in their mouth after Phase IV entered “Phase III,” where the scientist’s hand goes monstrously bloated from a poisonous ant bite, and Phase IV became the B-movie everyone thought it was and sold it as.
There is a sequence which might best illustrate the failings of the film as a whole, by examining the success of the individual scene. Early on, the scientist, Dr. Hubbs, introduces natural parasites to the ant population to study how the ants react, as well as to perhaps mitigate the population. The operation is running on the power of a backup generator.
We move in on an ant, tearing at the generator’s power wire. Like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, this ant is hard at work in its covert mission. The camera then tilts up, revealing the waiting, ever patient menace of a green mantis. The camera moves into a close up on the face and eyes of the mantis. What is it thinking, if anything? Slowly, calmly, the mantis skulks down from its perch unbeknownst to the lone ant. The Mantis grasps at the ant and quickly breaks its exo-skeleton and begins its feast.
Triumphant, the camera rack focuses from the mantis to a corner of the frame—a further region of this generator geography—where a larger ant watches…I want to say in horror, but what can I say for an ant? The ant ascertains it can pull at the mantis leg, and quickly drags the mantis off of the wire and to a fiery demise.
This is serious, dramatic stuff: Cinema! And there is nary a human character in sight. There is something captured within this sequence that the remainder of the film strives for, but never reaches.
Think of the beginning again. We, as an audience, examine the world of the ants. But always from the outside: cold spectators. They are the film’s subjects. This is all set-up, preamble. The voice-over narration doesn’t help the cause. Although it may be vital for the development of the narrative, it instantly removes the audience from attempting to relate to the ants as anything other than a mechanism putting the humans in peril.
Relating to ants, or any beast, is no easy cinematic feat. I wonder if that kind of understanding is even yet built into us: if we as viewers are ready. Sure there are animated movies, like Antz, but when your ant is Woody Allen, you can’t really get more anthropomorphic. Stanley Kubrick started us out with a civilization of apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in those apes he was simply showing us.
Recently, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes may have come closest to realizing this in film. The impressive opening features apes living away from humanity. To be fair, the only reason this stands out from the original Apes series is that technology has allowed the primates to move beyond Roddy McDowal in makeup: they are still human actors playing our closest animal ancestor—and a highly evolved ancestor with the ability to speak sign language.
But perhaps it is a start. In 1974, Phase IV’s opening voiceover indicates that Bass was aware that the people need a human protagonist. But the implied message of the film is deeper—and wishes us not to be instantly afraid and react destructively towards evolving intelligence, and other forms of life.
Based on the mysterious ant towers and crop circles, the mathematician decides the ants are of a surprisingly remarkable intelligence, and attempts to communicate by sending out a message encrypted in geometry. They succeed. Their messages become deeper, and much more nuanced than that of the devolving Dr. Hubbs. But, you see, that is the problem. Save for that one scene with the mantis, the ants are, well, just ants. And the mission to evolve them in our minds has never happened, and therefore it has not happened on the screen either. Who feels bad when they step on an ant? Which is fine for sci-fi fodder about the revenge of giant ants, but if you mean to take it at a more serious level—well, this film doesn’t find that level.
So we are simply left in the final act, “Phase III,” with all the usual science fiction stereotypes, and all perils and pitfalls of such a flick.
But still: what a valiant effort. And in its poetry, and given the fact that in 2015 I am writing in consideration of the film—how much of a failure was it? The film is majestic in its tone, soundscape, and pacing. And that is better than can be said for a lot of films that aren’t even about killer ants.
The film is in and of itself, an evolution. You have the man who almost single-handedly created title sequences as a story-telling device evolving into a full-fledged director. Rather than touting what he is known for, he not only forgoes that, but human characters as well—crafting a spellbinding opening that rightly should rank with any of his opening credit designs. He then tries to tell an ecological (non-) horror tale. Weird, right: (non-) horror? Because the horror was self-imposed: predicated on our deciding that it is, in fact horrifying. If we tried to work with new forms and thoughts rather than simply try to annihilate and destroy at first sight, maybe the end result wouldn’t be one of horror.
This is true in both integral matters of life, culture, and social acceptance; as well as when somebody dares to do something new in the world of art.