In “Un Chien Andalou,” the 1929 surrealist short film by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, there is a shot of ants crawling out of a hole in the palm of someone’s hand. Having watched, as a child, ants working on small dead animals, Dali used ants in his work to symbolise decay, the ephemeral, and decadence.
In “Phase IV,” a 1974 feature film by Saul Bass, a cosmic event causes a colony of ants to undergo rapid evolution, creating hive minds, and colonising the world. Dali did not write the script, but he might as well have.
This film is often considered to be bad, or difficult to understand, and was one of the first films to be “riffed” on the series “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” when it was still on local television in Minneapolis. It was a good indication of what the show would become once it was seen on national TV, when it was given the resources needed to find the very worst films, but when you are working with what exists in the library of a local TV station, you are given the unintended impression that a difficult film is as easy to mock as an outright bad one. For “MST3K” fans, “Phase IV” is not as obvious film to riff as “Manos: The Hands of Fate” and “Pumaman.”
Saul Bass only directed one feature film in his career, mainly because “Phase IV” disappointed at the box office, but he is best known for designing title sequences and posters for many films, most notably for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Psycho,” while also storyboarding the shower scene for “Psycho.” By the time “Phase IV” came around, he had also begun designing logos for company logos for Minolta, Warner Bros, Kleenex, United Airlines, AT&T, Exxon and so on.
By “Phase IV,” Hollywood had already produced science fiction films that were paranoid about the fate of humanity, including “Planet of the Apes,” “Soylent Green,” and “The Omega Man,” but this film deploys imagery similar to, and not seen since, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” from the monolith-like ant hills, to Ken Middleham’s micro-photography of ant farms, working the movements of the now sentient ants into a narrative, all mixed to ether with more psychedelic imagery, overlaying various shots.
The story and plot are told more through imagery and sound, rather than using straight action, requiring you to think more about what you are being made to see – for those that find ants creepy, seeing one fill an entire screen may be more than enough. The story is broken up into the “phases” under which the ants transform, only giving us the title “Phase IV” at the end. There are only three main human protagonists in the film – a scientist that wants to communicate with the ants, then reason with them; another scientist that goes to war with them, and a young woman who believes they enraged them. Only at the end do they realise that supremacy wasn’t the aim, but the integration of humanity with the ants’ world: “I’d still like to believe that, given time, we could have come to an understanding.”
Despite the trippy imagery, the film was not successful upon its release, mainly because it was not straightforward enough – being made to watch a literal ant funeral on screen, with the electronic musical score guiding you emotionally through it, will either be profound or preposterous. However, the film has gained a cult following, and Saul Bass continued in design, before returning to film titles in the late 1980s, notably for Martin Scorcese’s films “Casino,” “Cape Fear” and “GoodFellas.”