Phase IV

Year: 1974
Production Co: Alced Productions
Director: Saul Bass
Writer: Mayo Simon
Cast: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick

If you watch this film hoping for an Empire of the Ants -level shlockfest you'll be disappointed, but you might be pleasantly surprised because of a vibe that's slightly reminiscent of The Andromeda Strain.

Directed by titles design legend Saul Bass (a financial flop and thus his only film), it's more about the science and ideas rather than thrills and effects.

Apart from a few hoary Hollywood tropes, it's treated with a serious eye and – as you'd hope given the director's reputation – has starkly handsome design and art direction given what looks like a pretty low budget. In the most obvious example, several scenes of strange obelisks on the desert floor built to reflect light are so obviously hand-animated they look like they were done by the Looney Tunes staff on a weekend off.

The premise sounds silly but writer Mayo Simon takes it seriously enough to make it work. After some cosmic event passes through the solar system, ants form a hive mind, their individual actions augmented by their communication systems and their new collective consciousness apparently deciding to take over the Earth.

In a remote corner of Arizona (actually Kenya standing in, with interiors filmed at the UK's Pinewood studios), ants have built a series of strange geometric towers a few dozen feet high and have been terrorising local ranchers and residents, driving them out until only a single family remains.

Two scientists move in to find out what's going on. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) believes the ants are up to something, and he recruits former student and statistician Lesko (Michael Murphy) to help because – in the coolest part of the science behind the film – the ants are producing signals Hubbs believes can be interpreted as a language, and they have to use data science to disentangle and understand it (cue banks of fridge-sized mainframes everywhere with magnetic tape reels on the front, given the era).

They set up a sealed habitat lab full of radar, the aforementioned computers and test equipment and set to work trying to understand how the ants think and if possible, even communicate with them.

The ants indeed have a nefarious purpose, outwitting and endangering the scientists at every step by knowing which circuits to eat through to destroy the air conditioning, building the reflective towers to make the habitat too hot to stay in, etc, in an arms race that can only turn deadly.

Meanwhile – in the single biggest Hollywood trope – the last family around are set upon by the ants and when their truck crashes near the habitat and the rancher and his wife succumb. Only their pretty young daughter Kendra (Lynne Frederick) survives and is rescued by Lesko, becoming his confidante as Hubbs gets more unhinged and bloodthirsty.

One aspect you'll be particularly impressed by is several scenes depicting one or more ants actually performing to tell their part of the story. Using what must have been pinhole cameras stuck into mounds of dirt, the production captured several protagonist ants (the queen is a massive, snarling monster and there's one with a green abdominal sac) doing things that actually communicate purpose.

I have no idea about the extent to which you can train ants to do what you want by leaving certain chemicals on or electrifying the ground, or whether Bass and his second unit were more like the makers of ill-fated lion horror/dramedy Roar, pointing cameras at ants for countless hours just hoping they did what was needed.

But it's one to add to your collection of cerebral sci-fi from the pre- Star Wars days.

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