1 Hr., 23 Mins.
Phase IV August 24, 2020
hase IV (1974), prolific designer Saul Bass’ sole directorial effort, is a cool, almost clinical creature feature. It luxuriates not in big, fantastical scares but in smaller existential horrors. It seems a joke at first that the monsters freaking the world out in Phase IV are tiny. They’re ants, and not the giant, radiation-affected ones seen in overblown killer-colony movies like 1954’s Them! or 1977’s Empire
of the Ants. Just the kind you could squish with a point of a high heel. They’re shot lovingly in the movie. When it’s time for one’s close-up, it could be the subject of a Vermeer painting. And when we see many in their habitats, in microscopic detail, they are sometimes backed by warm, technicolor-ish lighting that gives them a certain mysticism.
In other features in which insects are the enemy, a freak-of-nature monster foe’s becoming villainous like Godzilla is, for the general population, often sudden. An aura of suspense is usually felt by the audience, though, via a protracted period of foreshadowing. But in Phase IV, it’s known, from the outset, that these ants are up to something. Exactly what, however, is unknown. At the beginning of the film, through voiceover, we learn that following a once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event, the insects have been acting strangely around the world, carving huge crop-circle-like designs in the earth and constructing cannily geometric hills that look like buildings.
Phase IV follows a couple of scientists, Ernest and James (Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy), studying the phenomenon in a particularly active spot in an arid part of Arizona. (So active that most of the townspeople have had to leave.) You know, the moment you see the scientific base — it’s an isolated, cylindrical slab that recalls the ice-choked station in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) — that this will not be a conventionally thrilling movie in which Ernest and James will conquer the “enemy” mostly with their wits.
The finale is bleak. But it’s furtively, indirectly so. (You get a better idea of what it might be suggesting when you read about the out-there closer Bass had been pushing for, which was rejected by the studio before the movie could be released.) The ride up to it is ambulatory, almost uneventful; there is a lot of dread never quite released. It's the spooky quietness of Phase IV that partially makes it stand apart from others in the creature-feature crowd. The subgenre is typically interested in simply collecting reactions (and bolstering neat special effects responding) to the monster in question, and/or acting as then-germane, eruptive nightmare scenarios relating to Cold-War anxieties.
Phase IV abstains from genre-affiliated operatics. It seems more to be zeroing in on the terror one might feel when thinking too hard about the futility, and fragility, of civilization. Could hypersmart ants really bring it down? Such sounds laughable. But the screenplay, by Mayo Simon, and Bass’s solemn treatment of it, evoke a more personal, less overblown fear. The film recalls, almost, the feeling one might get waiting for a particularly devastating natural disaster that could hit at any minute, knowing protective resources will not be enough this time around. For some, the unflashiness of the movie, and its lack of any real catharsis, might suggest an emptiness. Perhaps even, with Bass’s glacial, compositionally precise style, an excuse for the designer to showcase his stylistic proclivities somewhere besides a piece of paper or in an opening montage in someone else’s movie. Phase IV is an exciting expansion of what the monster movie could be, and of Bass's artistic gifts. A-