This 1974 Sci-Fi Horror film would seem, on the surface, to resemble many of the other "Man vs. Bugs" films that came out during The '70s (like The Swarm and Kingdom of the Spiders). Phase IV, however, is a bit more cerebral than its brethren; the conflict with the ants in this movie more resembles a game of chess than it does an action-packed physical battle. It was the first and only feature-length film made by Saul Bass, who is better known for his graphic designs and innovative opening title sequences for various classic movies, like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Vertigo.
The film opens with the Earth undergoing the effects of a strange and rare cosmic alignment. Scientists aren't sure what effects, if any, the alignment has had on the planet and are quick to write it off. One scientist, however, notices some strange behavior beginning to occur amongst Earth's ant populations—they're becoming more intelligent and aggressive. They've begun attacking larger insects and animal species that are threatening them. Then the ants decide to take it a step further and attack a human community, destroying its houses and driving out its residents. (Mind you, the ants are still the same size as they were pre-cosmic-alignment, they've just grown in intelligence and number.) Alarmed, the authorities dispatch a team of two scientists to the region of infestation to investigate what's going on. One of the scientists is a middle-aged British biologist named Hubbs (Nigel Davenport)—he was the one who originally noticed the ants' weird behavior. And the other scientist is a young cryptologist named Lesko (Michael Murphy), whom Hubbs hired in the hope that he would be able to decipher the ants' communications and discover their intentions. The two men set up shop in the middle of the desert in a sealed geodesic dome equipped with poison sprayers and the best Seventies-Era technology government money can buy. Then they sit back and wait for the ants to make their first move...
Things don't go entirely as planned, however. A tragic accident involving one of their experiments results in the death of most of a farm family. Its lone surviving member—a teenage girl named Kendra (Lynne Frederick)— is forced to take up residence with the two scientists to await transportation out of the area. Things get worse when the ants sabotage the scientists' communication console, effectively cutting off everyone's sole means of escape. This might not have been a problem had the ants not proven themselves to be highly poisonous, and capable of building deadly traps. The humans aren't completely helpless—they have the science and ingenuity to counter the ants' measures. However, it remains to be seen which species will have the skill and intelligence to win the upcoming battle, much less survive it...
The film is regarded by many to be an underrated classic. Despite a potentially goofy-sounding premise, Bass manages to put together a suspenseful, deliberately paced film that has the viewer on the edge of their seat, eagerly awaiting whatever move either side will make next. It also features a lot of innovative close-up footage of ants who are so expertly manipulated and filmed that one might actually think they do possess human intelligence.
Although Phase IV once appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000 during the KTMA days, it wasn't so much because of its quality as it was because of its sci-fi subject matter, its strange, ambiguous ending, and the fact that KTMA just didn't have a whole lot of movies in its library to choose from. (Pretty much anything they had that was remotely science fictiony —or remotely related to the Mystery Genre for that matter—wound up on the show.)
Not to be confused with the suspense movie Phase IV, which came out in 2002.
Phase IV provides examples of:
- Adaptive Ability: Once our two leads use the yellow poison in the ants, several ants are shown individually attempting to get a large sample of it to the Queen ant. Once the poison gets to her (at the cost of the lives of three ants), she eats it and is shown laying a yellow egg. Not too much later, yellow ants immune to the poison are shown among the regular ones.
- There is a chance these yellow ants are poisonous as well but it's never made clear as none of the human characters ever physically touch them.
- Alien Landmass: The alternate ending is full of them. First of all, we see Kendra and Lesko running across the top of a giant hexagon/shaped plateau which abruptly changes shape into a giant staircase, then running across a landscape with monolithic towers, then another oddly shaped plateau, then a zoom-in to a structure with three shadowy figures milling about, then pople being observed by a giant ant, followed by Kendra and Lesko running through a maze.
- Animal Nemesis: Hubbs develops this mentality after the ants have poisoned him. It starts with him merely wanting to "teach the ants their place" and ends with him ranting and destroying everything in sight so he can kill a single ant whom he feels is spying on them. Kendra also releases the ants into the dome when, in a bout of rage at them killing her parents, she smashes the equipment that contains them.
- Ant Assault: The film revolves around a pair of scientists being besieged by a titanic army of ants who have, through unknown means, become highly intelligent and bent on world domination.
- The Blank: A man with no facial features whatsoever except for dents were his eyes and nostrils would be is seen during the scrapped ending montage.
- The Chessmaster: While the humans put up a valiant effort, the prize has to go to the ants, who somehow manage to figure out and sabotage human technology, as well as build traps that would make Jigsaw proud.
- Closed Circle: Item one: the ants are surrounding the dome. Item two: Hubbs, in his emphasis to stay around to keep Admiring the Abomination, deliberately left the scientists' car outside of the dome. Item three: the first thing that the ants sabotage within the lab is the radio transmitter, so they cannot call for a helicopter.
- Close on Title: Due to each act in the film being a different phase in the implied sequence of the title; the movie opens with Phase I, both subsequent acts are labelled as phases II and III with the movie ending on Phase IV.
- Covers Always Lie: To be fair, the part where an ant comes from someone's palm does happen (but the person is long dead, so there's no blood), but the lab dome is never set ablaze and the poster implies that aliens are behind the ants' actions while the story never truly answers this.
- Crop Circles: Ur-Cinematic Example. Though made by ants instead of aliens, this was the first movie to feature a crop circle.
- Decapitated Army: Hubbs' idea in the final act, driven by insanity and desperation more than anything else, is to leave the dome and walk several miles to what appears to be the central ant hive to kill the queen within. Lesko walks to the hive, but the Gainax Ending occurs and pretty much implies that performing this would have been useless anyway.
- Dissonant Serenity:
- Hubbs: Hello, James [Lesko]! As you can see, we are under siege. (Cut to a screen showing the mirrors that the ants have built outside, making the dome increasingly hotter).
- Does Not Like Shoes: Kendra is barefoot throughout the entire film.
- Downer Ending: The two surviving cast members resign themselves to the fact that the super-smart ants are effectively well on their way to conquer the world, and Lesko decides to continue his work on making contact with the ants... so he can take their orders.
- Eek, a Mouse!!: Kendra screams when she sees a mouse wandering around in the desert via a closed-circuit video screen. Then she and the other characters gape in horror as they watch the ants quickly devour the entire mouse in a matter of seconds.
- Evil Brit: While Hubbs certainly isn't evil, he doesn't seem all that concerned about the deaths caused by one of his experiments. He's more interested in fighting the ants than he is in showing the proper amount of tact for his actions. (Of course, he's right about the ants and is justified in wanting his experiments to continue, but he should have done more than just shrug and say "Oh well," upon seeing the bodies of his experiments' unintended victims.)
- Fanservice: Lynne Frederick (Kendra) was definitely very cute in a Seventies sort of way. One sequence follows an ant up close as it crawls through her clothing, giving the viewer an ant's-eye view of Kendra's...um...assets.
- Fanservice Extra: The deleted Mind Screw montage also features a naked woman with a very sizeable chest seen from the neck down towards the end.
- For Science!: Hubbs is pretty much this, until the late stages of his insanity, Admiring the Abomination, pursuing multiple theories and coldly dismissing his role in the deaths of the farmers (by accidentally spraying them with a high-powered pesticide) by saying "sometimes people die". Lesko also has this mentality, watching with amazement the results of the computer analysis of the ants' reactions.
- Gainax Ending: And how. Saul Bass wasn't happy with the ending of the film, but Executive Meddling forced him to do it this way.
- Glass-Shattering Sound: Lesko uses white sound to figure out which specific frequency will destroy the ants' mirrors, then switches to that to shatter them.
- Gory Discretion Shot: Hubbs' death, Eaten Alive by a swarm of ants.
- Half-Human Hybrid: Implied to happen to Kendra and Lesko, to make them subservient to the ants as part of the Gainax Ending. Interestingly, director Saul Bass wanted to make it an explicit trope on his proposed ending, showcasing the transformation procedure a bit more.
- Heroic Sacrifice: When the ants manage to send a message which implies that they want a person from within the lab, Kendra walks out of the lab to be taken by them. The Gainax Ending starts right when it is shown that the ants let her live.
- It Can Think: The ants. And the cast is divided between admiring this, being terrified by this, and looking for a way to make contact with the ants. And even when many of the ants are quick to sacrifice themselves to sabotage the humans' gear, a scene after Lesko destroys the mirrors shows the ants grabbing their fellow ants' bodies and apparently mourning them.
- Kill It with Fire: The Determined Homesteader family builds a moat and fills it with gasoline, hoping that setting it ablaze will keep the ants at bay. It doesn't work.
- Mind Screw: The five minutes of the film's ending between Kendra being resurrected and the end credits that was cut out is filled with bizarre, trippy, and sometimes nightmarish imagery. See it for yourself!
- Minimalist Cast: Two scientists, a bunch of Red Shirt determined farmers that die quickly, and the sole surviving girl from the latter group who joins the scientists.
- The Narrator: Both scientists exposit via voiceover at some point, usually in some sort of "Captain's Log" manner.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Kendra smashes the glass container the ants are in out of anger in an attempt to kill them for killing her parents. Though her emotions are understandable, her actions allow the ants to infiltrate the base and short out the radio, leaving Hubbs and Lesko unable to radio for help, rescue, or additional supplies. This may have even been the killing blow for any chance of the ants' world conquest being squashed.
- Sanity Slippage: Kendra's grandmother after the ants have driven them out of their home. And of course, there's also Hubbs, who slips in and out of delirium after a poisonous ant bite leaves his arm painful and swollen.
- The Siege: Those within the lab are surrounded by a massive amount of ants that can think. The worst part is that some ants have been released within the lab, and they are quite capable of performing sabotage...
- Title Drop: The "phases" of the cosmic alignment (and the ants' increasing intelligence and efforts to conquer), which divide the film's acts, are put on-screen as titles.
- Stuff Blowing Up: The ants begin constructing large towers and also solar reflectors to heat the laboratory. Hubbs constructs a homemade grenade launcher to take care of this.
- Ur-Example: One of the earliest examples of the Close on Title trope, due to each act of the film being represented as the next phase of the ants' domination of the world. The film opens with a Phase I titlecard, the second act is phase II, phase III starts the third act and we finally see Phase IV prior to the closing credits.