It’s always refreshing to find a movie that tries to do something different instead of relying on the clichés of the day. And while it’s not entirely successful, Phase IV manages to bridge the gap between science fiction and revenge-of-nature horror, with a bit of post-2001: A Space Odyssey surrealism.
A (vaguely described) outer space event briefly has humankind worried, but once the event’s over with all seems normal. And while most of humanity has gone back to its regular business, Dr. Hobbs (Nigel Davenport) is troubled by unusual behavior among ants. It seems that in certain areas, the ants are leaving off their usual interspecies warfare and cooperating – preying on their predators (and on livestock), creating crop circles, and building strange tower-like structures in the desert.
Hobbs recruits James (Michael Murphy), a young scientist who’s had luck deciphering the language of dolphins, and they set up a lab in a geodesic dome in the desert, to see if they can figure out what the ants are up to and what it means for mankind. As Hobbs and James make their way to the dome we see signs that the ant problem isn’t as trivial as one would think – an abandoned housing development (the timbers weakened and eaten away by holes bored by the ants), dead livestock (again with those unsettling bore holes in their flesh), and more of those odd towers.
Matters begin to escalate when Hobbs provokes the ants into coming closer to the research lab – by blowing up the towers with grenades. Subtle, isn’t he? The ants come after the lab, and also attack a local farm. The farm family escapes only to get caught in a biotoxin that Hobbs sprays on the ants, and the only survivor is the family’s daughter Kendra (Lynne Frederick, looking like a Breck Girl). Not only does Kendra’s presence complicate the situation, but Hobbs is beginning to show signs of Mad Scientist Syndrome. And the ants have learned how to adapt to the biotoxin and are staging a new, different kind of assault.
Phase IV won’t please those looking for drive-in jollies or a down-and-dirty creature feature. It’s very deliberate both in its pace and in its story. It requires the viewer to pay attention, particularly during the many scenes of the ants in their tunnels, when it becomes clear that the ants are far more intelligent than any of the humans give them credit for. Yet the film lingers in the memory despite the gaps in the story or the sometimes inadequate acting.
Some nice ambiguity is provided by director Saul Bass and writer Mayo Simon’s refusal to explain many things. Does the ants’ behavior have anything to do with the outer space event? What do the towers and their statue-like shape (reminiscent somehow of the Easter Island statues) mean? Are the ants in control or being controlled? Phase IV explains very little, yet is never frustrating.
That’s not to say the film is without flaws. The movie lacks a compelling human character – Hobbs is a hubristic jerk from the start and James is fairly bland. The acting is hit and miss. The movie is also very much of its time, with a 2001-inspired ending that is both cool and unsatisfying at the same time. Still, if you’re in the right mood, Phase IV is entertaining and a refreshing change of pace.
The DVD has a decent transfer but no extras at all. Booo!