Phase IV is a 1974 science fiction insect fear film directed by famed title sequence creator Saul Bass and starring Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport and Lynn Frederick as two scientists and a Breck Girl who become trapped in a desert research station while investigating hyper-intelligent ants. This is well and good, but does it make a lick of sense?
Following an "event" in outer space scientists begin noticing strange behavior in ants. Previously hostile species of ants begin communicating with one another, cooperating to eliminate threats from their environment and erecting spooky matte paintings in the desert.
This fascinates scientists, for a time, but then they get bored and go back to studying other stuff. Because, you know, mysterious space events and emergent hive mind intelligence just can't compete with sequencing the yeast genome or looking into why pulsar PSR1957+20 is slightly less red than one would expect.
Dr. Ernest Hubbs, field biologist and general arrogant scientist type, is given about a week by his employers to clear up this whole "newly emergent hyper intelligent hostile hive mind" problem and he hires the intrepid statistician and screensaver developer James Lesko to help him crack the ant code.
After the scientists blow up the ants' home, the ants trap them inside their geodesic research facility along with the lone survivor of a late night ant attack on a local ranch, Kendra Eldridge, who spends most of the movie trying to decide which of her two friends she's going to tell about her shampoo.
While Lesko researches the ants' communication patterns, Dr. Hubbs develops an increasingly Ahab-like obsession with finding and killing the queen.
Yadda yadda yadda, long story short: humanity completely surrenders to the ants without really putting up a fight and becomes assimilated into the ant overlord hive mind to begin working on...Phase IV. Of what, no one has any idea. Roll credits.
Along with films like The Hellstrom Chronicle, Kingdom of the Spiders, and The Andromeda Strain, Phase IV is a product of the triple threat zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s: The Apollo Program, the Cold War and Silent Spring. Insect commies from outer space are coming for our towns, nature will eventually kick our collective asses for using pesticides and the only hope we have lies in the hands of scientists watching needles move on old timey analog displays.
Insects are the greatest threat humanity has faced because they are ruthless, genetically adaptable, single-minded and they don't need SAG cards. The most interesting sequences in Phase IV are the microphotography stories of individual worker ants as they move through the colony and implement their various anti-human strategies.
The problem is that the human characters end up being upstaged by the ants. Consider this sequence, in which worker ants struggle to deliver a glob of insecticide to the queen so she can adapt the next generation of workers to the toxin. Each ant who dies passes the glob to the next.
That's pretty much the height of melodrama in Phase IV. The pathos of ants sacrificing themselves for the greater good completely overwhelms the human story where there's no character development, no unraveling mystery, no ticking clock, no conflict and no real plot to speak of.
And, worst of all, there's no jargon. Whether it's Jeff Goldblum rambling on about chaos theory in Jurassic Park or Richard Dreyfuss explaining the life cycle of the Carcharodon carcharias in Jaws or the scientists in The Andromeda Strain getting snippy with each other over which sub-micron air filter to attach to which rat cage, these films need some sort of scientific verisimilitude to create suspense.
The scientific dialogue in Phase IV is general and vague. The opening monologue describes the initiating event in space as "the event in space." Engineers "got excited about variables." The main character describes himself as having "fooled around with number theory." These are not sentences used to introduce a deeper discussion of these subjects. This is as deep as it gets.
In The Andromeda Strain, by contrast, we are given the rules of epidemiology: disease pathogens are biological, they depend on organic chemistry and biological processes to propagate and the literal "nuclear option" will always work if nothing else does. We spend a long time in The Andromeda Strain going over biological containment protocols up to and including psychological theories on who will most reliably push the nuclear button should the need arise.
The twist is, of course, that Andromeda is not biological, that it feeds on pure energy and that nuking it will just make it bigger and stronger. The scientists' biocentric bias almost leads them into disaster. We're familiar with that biocentric bias because we spent the first two acts of the film watching it in action, so we have some sense of how Andromeda has blindsided our heroes.
In Phase IV, we are not given the rules for ants. We're not told how they communicate, organize and defend themselves under normal circumstances nor are we given any insight into how or why these rules are changed in the Phase IV colony. The closest thing we get is a speech about the general power of collective intelligence that leaves one with the impression that these people would probably have been outsmarted by a colony of everyday, ordinary ants.