Thursday, January 16, 2020

Ants in the Pants

Films: Phase IV
Format: DVD from Champaign Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Phase IV is a movie that I’ve seen for some reason at some distant point in the past. It’s not one that I can say I was desperate to rewatch, but it is one that I was having a great deal of difficulty finding. I remembered very little about it. I knew that it was about ants, I remembered a scene where a scientist smashes a bunch of computers, and I remembered at least a part of the way that it ended. What I didn’t know back then was that this was directed by Saul freakin’ Bass. In fact, it’s his only feature-length film as a director.

As mentioned, Phase IV is a movie about ants. There is an unknown cosmic event that appears to have accelerated some part of their evolution. Out in the desert, there are a number of strange geometric structures that appear to have been created by the ants. A pair of scientists with a staggering amount of computer equipment, set up shop to study the ants. What happens is a battle between the scientists and the insects. It does not go well for the scientists.

The people who live in the area flee, with the exception of one family. When the ants begin to attack the scientific outpost, controlled by the new super-intelligent hive mind. The scientists respond with chemical warfare. This kills not only a bunch of the ants, but also most of the remaining family who were fleeing since the ants targeted them as well. The young(ish) daughter Kendra (Lynne Frederick) survives and is soon taken in by the scientists.

The two scientists are a dichotomy in how they address the ants. Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) sees himself as clearly superior to the ants and sees the conflict with them as something akin to war. James Lesko (Michael Murphy), sees what is happening as an opportunity, and spends his time attempting to communicate with the ants as best he can, trying to decipher their language. It’s soon evident that the humans are badly outclassed, though. At least Hubbs is, and he takes this personally. Hubbs seems to do everything he can to further isolate the small group from the rest of the world and consistently underestimates the new intelligence of the ants.

The most interesting thing about Phase IV is not so much the base story, but the basic idea behind that story. This is a tale of first contact more than it is anything else. The traditional first contact is a story where humanity encounters an alien race and attempts to find a way to communicate. A film like Arrival from a couple of years ago is a prime example of this, since that is almost entirely what it is about. Phase IV is essentially this story, but with a completely terrestrial “other.” The ant intelligence that we are shown here is entirely different from human intelligence as if it were entirely alien.

This is really the best part of the story. The ants truly are intelligent, and because of the way that the way ant society works and what more or less constitutes individuality in ant society, is entirely different from human society and beliefs. Essentially, it is the story of humans contacting a great foreign intelligence. How will we react if this happens? How do we deal with an implacable intelligence that happily sacrifices parts of itself for a short-term gain. That, more than anything, is what makes the ants so terrifying. Sending in a few dozen workers on a literal suicide mission because that will damage the human position is nothing for this intelligence. It is utterly lacking in feelings like compassion or events like inventory.

What the film does well is play this up. Because the ants are non-human, a great deal of the film comes down to whether or not this communication can happen, and if it can, what it ultimately might mean. The problem is that it’s mired in a lot of pseudoscientific stuff to sound official Beyond that, the film’s biggest narrative tool is to use a lot of footage of ants crawling on things, and sometimes eating things in hyper-sped up film. There’s a lot of ant footage here, and while that is interesting after a fashion, there’s more here than anyone needs.

Why to watch Phase IV: It postulates first contact as being entirely terrestrial, and that’s a cool idea.
Why not to watch: It’s about 50% ant footage.


  1. thou canst not talk, nor e'en relate
    with that which only formicates
    like Michael Crichton's novel Prey
    the swarms are set to win the day

    1. For as weird as this movie is--and since it's a science fiction movie about sentient ant colonies, it's damn weird--the weirdest thing about it is that it's the only feature-length directorial effort of Saul Bass.

  2. I just watched the trailer for this and I LOVED it. It's got that early 70s dystopian sci-fi vibe and look. Never heard of Phase IV but it looks really interesting.

    1. That's the Saul Bass coming through.

      You'll want to know going in that there is an MST3K version of this. It's probably not that deserving of it, but I won't hide that fact from you.