Mladen and Del review ‘Phase IV’

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

“Phase IV” Starring Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, Lots of Ants and others. Directed by Saul Bass. 84 minutes. Rated PG. Hulu, Prime.

Mladen’s take

“Phase IV,” lovingly built in 1974 with an admirable effort at incorporating animated and computer graphics to enhance the film, is sci-fi at its finest – provocative and enthralling.

Remember, we’re talking about 1974 here. 1974 was 47 years ago. 1974 was the year of another Republican dickhead president’s impeachment (Nixon). Hell, I was but a sprite in 1974.

Del always bellyaches about my inadequate summaries of film plots, so I’ll give it a better shot this go-around. The problem? A completely thorough plot summary gives away the story, which, I assume, makes a movie less fun to watch.

The “Phase IV” plot: Mankind drops to the bottom of the food chain. Sufficient summary, Del? No? OK.

A burst of celestial energy, detected early and highly anticipated by scientists because of what it could do to life on Earth, passes through our planet without causing obvious change or damage. One lone entomologist, however, notices something odd unfolding in Arizona post-energy wave. Ants of different species are no longer feuding, are systematically cooperating to extinguish their predators, and appear to be gathering at pow-wows to talk strategy. The ant tribes build a half-dozen cooling towers for their massive collective nest. No big deal, right? Some regular ants (and termites) have built elevated structures to help condition the air flowing through their underground homes for tens of thousands of years, probably longer. But, the Arizona ant colony chimneys are symmetrical and constructed at right angles. They’re topped with triangular slits inside squares that face in exactly the same direction and tilt upward and back slightly. The chimneys are symbolic structures, too, maybe even a form of religious worship. The entomologist (Davenport as Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs) concludes the energy burst has rendered the ants intelligent. Trouble is on the way unless the “natural order” is restored, he advises a panel. The panel authorizes construction of a research facility smack dab in the middle of the territory of the sectarian smart ants. Hubbs recruits Lesko (Murphy) to staff the laboratory. Lesko is a numbers theorist and cryptographer with expertise in deciphering languages. There’s a third person in the story, Lynne Frederick as teenager Kendra, but she’s used to help the movie along to reach Phase IV of the Ant plan for humanity. In short, Hubbs and Lesko end up fighting the six-legged version of Star Trek’s Borg. Very, very neat.

“Phase IV” is remarkable for its capture of real ants performing ant-like duties in organized, methodical, and adaptable fashion. The humans and the smart ants duel, each species countering the other’s moves of conquest and domination. Wait until you see how the ants flush the scientists and the girl from their geodesic dome laboratory. Hell, Lesko even devises a way to communicate with the ant queen controlling the millions (billions?) of worker ants working to control the humans. She’s in no mood to negotiate a settlement or foster inter-species compromise. That’s very human-like. No?

“Phase IV” is an unambiguous A. You need to watch this blast from the past, something Del has come around to calling a “stream gem.”

Del’s take

I’ve seen bits and pieces of “Phase IV” over the years but never the entire movie until Mladen got a bee in his bonnet and suggested we review a film about super-smart ants.

I could tell it was a ’70s-vintage flick because of the Lazenby Computer Smooth font used in some of the typography. It seems every movie, book or magazine that sought to appear “modern” in the 1970s used Lazenby Computer Smooth. Now, of course, it makes me think “old.”

But that’s OK because “Phase IV” is a darned good little movie, much better than what the movie reviewers like Mladen – oops, that just slipped out – said about it. (Remember how the movie reviewers trashed “The Terminator”? Yeah. Those guys. Can’t believe a word they say.)

Mladen finally, after much ridiculing from yours truly, provided a decent plot summary, so I can get right into the critique itself.

You can’t judge “Phase IV” by today’s production standards. The music is contrived and hokey (though “modern” for its day), the characters behave in ways that would earn them a social media drubbing (Dr. Hubbs smokes!) and the special effects resemble those you and I would create if somebody handed us an 8mm movie camera and told us to revise “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”

My big gripe with “Phase IV” is that the characters seem incidental to the plot. Hubbs is a throwback to the misguided scientist who seemed to occupy every big bug movie produced in the 1950s, while his dashing sidekick – in this case Murphy’s James R. Lesko – seems more interested in 16-year-old Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick) than solving the mystery of the ants, creepy even for that era. Everyone else was cannon fodder so by the end I didn’t care as much about their fates as I should have.

But the ideas! Spectacular and original barely describe them. Director Bass doesn’t limit his ants’ intelligence to mere acts of malice but has them building oddly designed towers, drilling symmetrical holes in animal flesh and using unconventional warfare to flush out their human antagonists from their protective geodesic dome. The towers alone are worth the watch, standing creepily over the desert like mysterious Easter Island statuary, festooned with alien glyphs and designed with an architecture that weirdly, at least to me, suggested a non-human intelligence.

The inventiveness of the ant intelligence is under-appreciated by movie fans not including the cult worshippers “Phase IV” has amassed over the years, and it is one of those movies you should not only watch but add to your collection, along with “Day of the Triffids,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (original) and “Forbidden Planet,” to name a few.

I was surprised to learn the movie was not shot in Arizona but Kenya, and that it was a box office flop, which sealed Bass’s fate as a director. That’s too bad because “Phase IV” is a classic science fiction film and a wonderful cautionary tale about mankind’s hubris.

I give it an A despite its flaws.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.