Saul Bass! Crazy geometric title sequences! Indelible brands! Bold colors and blocked shapes and crazy animation! Can you imagine what an entire movie directed by him would be like?
Strangely, instead of a snappy title sequence, we start out Phase IV with some bad narration and a trip through the desert. But in short order we get a look at the real stars of this movie: Ants!
Oodles of ants, all kinds of species, (and even some hawk wasps acting as super-mutated ant queens) photographed in stylish crystalline backgrounds, and custom-made tunnels. Instead of giants, these are ordinary-sized ants, but for all their tiny size they accomplish something rare in the genre of insect-movie… They Win.
Instead of a straight-up invasion horror film, Phase IV is a surreal experimental science fiction film that brings a foreboding sense of doom for humanity when confronted with an unstoppable force. A couple of scientists are investigating what appear to be intelligent ants in the American Southwest, curiously the same geographical region Them! was set in. Sadly the humans are a pain to watch. Saul Bass can’t direct people worth a darn, and the acting of the humans is wooden, unsympathetic, and slow. But you’re not here to root for the humans. It is the incredible direction of the ants that is worth all your time. Without any dialogue or voice over, Saul Bass and Ken Middleham manage to convey a sense of purpose and intelligence to the tiny actors as they battle the panicked humans. A more in-depth review of the movie describes my favorite scene:
“In one wonderful sequence, the ants conduct a chain of self-sacrifice, dragging a piece of poison back to their lair, a new ant joining the line as each one keels over and dies in turn. This remarkable feat is aimed at immunizing the colony’s queen, allowing her to produce new offspring who are resistant to the poison — the science is certainly shaky, to say the least, but the scene is no less eye-catching for the way it dramatizes the emotions and spirit of these expressionless creatures.”
The film is creepy and random, and chock full of such creative entomological cinematography. And as a super bonus, there is no human victory. The ants build beautiful alien towers that dwarf the scientists’ facility, and clearly it is only a matter of time before they will take over the world.
I for one welcome our new ant overlords!