The Weekend Watch: Phase IV

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The Weekend Watch: Phase IV

Welcome to The Weekend Watch, a weekly column focusing on a movie—new, old or somewhere in between, but out either in theaters or on a streaming service near you—worth catching on a cozy Friday night or a lazy Sunday morning. Comments welcome!

You know Saul Bass from his severe lines and janky typography. You know him from his cheeky Hitchcock title sequences. You know him from the blue AT&T globe. Now, know him from his hyper-intelligent killer ants. That’s right, the legendary designer of logos, opening credits and movie posters also directed one truly nutty feature film: Phase IV. It’s streaming now on the Criterion Channel, and it’s a truly freaky display of bug-brained mania—and a perfectly ‘70s piece of sci-fi.

While Bass and his wife/co-director Elaine were nominated for two Oscars for their directing work (making short films for Robert Redford’s solar energy initiative among other things), the only time Bass got to push the 90-minute mark was with an impossibly pulpy premise. And your suspicions are correct: Phase IV is ridiculous. Two stiffly acted scientists (Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy), with shirts unbuttoned to fully expose their chest hair to the unsuspecting insects, study and combat a mysterious colony in the middle of nowhere. The dialogue (courtesy of writer Mayo Simon) is sparse, attempting to turn vague jargon into laconic poetry. A young local girl (Lynne Frederick) watches her family die, goes berserk on some ants, then gets sexually harassed for the rest of the film. It’s not a surprise that Phase IV was the subject of an early episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

But beyond the plot and dialogue and acting—important elements, but elements that have nothing to do with what made Bass into a legendary artist—Phase IV is captivating, even terrifying.

Filled with extreme close-up cinematography of ants, courtesy of Ken Middleham (who also helped shoot the Oscar-winning doc The Hellstrom Chronicle), Phase IV successfully brings us into the hivemindset. Through clever staging and optical effects, we’re transported down to ant-size, our POV shifted to that of a bug. A series of shots watching an ant traverse tunnels becomes a six-legged Paul Revere sequence—a messenger distributing vital information to HQ. An ant chewing through a power cable becomes a saboteur, and the looming mantis above could be mankind’s savior. Destructive mandibles and overwhelming numbers become time-lapse nightmares as mammals disappear before our eyes, fodder to the swarm.

They’re huge, they’re tiny, they’re everywhere. The scope and scale of Bass’ film oscillate disorientingly, leaving us reeling from the strange onslaught. If you’re a little stoned, that’s all the better.

Combined with a Stonehenge homage, a geodesic dome, brightly colored insecticide, one of the first instances of a cinematic crop circle, the encroachment of early computing, and a noxious, encompassing synth score, and all the bugs become features for Phase IV. The unsettling vibe is now enhanced by these inhuman performances. We’re held at arm’s length by people who can’t relate to one another, nor relate to the alien threat just outside their walls. What’s going on? How will sending drawings to the ants solve anything? What happened to that scientist’s arm? It’s all the more surreal and upsetting that there are no answers to be found—just endless ants.

If you can forgive some performances that are indistinguishable from those in many other MST3K-featured movies, Phase IV offers a delightfully bleak bit of ‘70s sci-fi with some unforgettable images. Insects become some of cinema’s biggest and baddest monsters; a Kenya-shot sunrise spectacularly fails to pass itself off as being in Arizona; humanity goes out not with a bang, but with a “Yes, Queen.”

Bonus: Watch the long-lost alternate ending of Phase IV where Bass concludes his strange film with a four-minute hallucinatory montage that offers up the film’s purest examples of Bass designwork. People are lost in the desert, lost in a rat maze, their third eyes opened only to reveal…ants. This ending was cut by the studio, but has been restored for some arthouse screenings and home releases. It rules, and is incredibly weird.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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