This 1974 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 ant's 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 scientist's 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:
- 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, smashes the equipment that contains them.
- 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
- Covers Always Lie: To be fair, the part where an ant comes from someone's palm do happens (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.
- Decapitated Army: Hubbs' idea on 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).
- 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 wanted 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.
- For Science!: Hubbs is pretty much this, until the late stages of his insanity, Admiring the Abomination, doing multiple theories and coldly dismissing his role in the death of the farmers (by accidentally spraying them dead with a high-powered pesticide) by saying "sometimes people die". Lesko also has the mentality, seeing in 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 manages to destroy the ants' mirrors by projecting white sound at 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 are looking for a way to make contact with the ants. And even when many of them 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 mourn 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.
- Minimalist Cast: Two scientists, a bunch of Red Shirt determined farmers that die quickly, and the sole surviving girl from the latter group that joins the scientists.
- The Narrator: Both scientists exposit via voiceover at some point, usually in some sort of "Captain's Log" manner.
- 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 has left 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.
- Spiritual Successor: Presumably completely unintentional, but this film is nevertheless a far more faithful adaptation of the H. G. Wells story "The Empire of the Ants" than the "official" Bert I. Gordon film.
- 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.