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"A celestial incident bathes the Earth in energy waves of an undisclosed nature. The incident passes harmlessly until scientist Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) investigates odd happenings in Arizona: ants are changing their basic social natures, ceasing to fight among themselves and banding together to wipe out their natural predators. Hubbs sets up a research lab in a sealed-off dome, and invites cryptographer and communications specialist James Lesko (Michael Murphy) to join him. Hordes of ants have already driven some farmers off the land, and the experiment is barely underway before the lab is under siege. Survivor Kendra Eldrige (Lynne Frederick) arrives; Hubbs doesn't report her or the killings because he doesn't want the experiment shut down. The super-intelligent ants attack the dome by building dirt-obelisks with reflective surfaces, to focus sunlight. They then infiltrate the lab to knock out the humans' air conditioner. Hubbs wants to keep fighting but Lesko has a longer view - the ants will eventually prevail, and mankind's only chance is to communicate with them".
Bass's optical effects have dated somewhat but the many insect microphotography sequences (by specialist Ken Middleham) have yet to be bettered. No filmmaker has been able to repeat Stanley Kubrick's melding of Science Fiction and experimental cinema but 2001 did spawn a number of films with ambitious themes. Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running had good intentions, good visuals and a rather draggy storyline, and George Roy Hill played some good tricks making Billy Pilgrim get unstuck in time in the Kurt Vonnegut adaptation Slaughterhouse-5. Movies with ecological themes tended toward sticky sentiment (Silent Running), paranoid conspiracies (Rage) or duck-amuck exploitation (No Blade of Grass).
The drama is a bit constipated, with Nigel Davenport behaving a bit like Quint in the next year's Jaws and then going berserk when he realizes he's no match for the ant horde. Cool customer Michael Murphy trades discoveries with Davenport, but wisely puts his energy into communication. The ant colonies have developed a mass intelligence, and become a vast communal creature. Individual insects are like cells of this body, reasons Davenport: they're expendable suicide fighters. When Davenport wipes out hundreds of thousands of attacking ants with a yellow foam, we see a series of ants dragging a piece of the foam back to their queen, each dying in turn from the poison. The queen processes the yellow goop and immediately adapts by pumping out yellow, poison resistant ant larvae. The next generation will be that much closer to victory.
Phase IV revisits the concept of a communal multi-organism creature, as proposed in Nigel Kneale's Quatermass 2. When Murphy breaks down the ants' mechanical language, the film also harmonizes somewhat with Close Encounters.
The key to everything is communication, as the ant intelligence seems to be truly curious about humans. Security comes first, though, and most of Phase IV is a curious battle between the isolated lab dome and the ant onslaught. The ants surround the dome with towers topped with heat-reflectors -- like the Markalites ray cannons that lay siege to the Mysterians' battle dome in Chikyu Boeigun, but on a much smaller scale. Saboteur ants sneak in to gnaw away at crucial lab wiring -- the communal ant mind has analyzed the dome's defenses.
Saul Bass's main talent, even in his famous title sequences, is visual communication, and his optical tricks conjure up weird space phenomena, strange silhouetted shapes on the horizon, and a few impressive (if dated) surreal images. Some of these are on the grainy side. The real wonder of the film are Ken Middleham's incredibly good micro-cinematographic views of the ants and other insects going about their business. The film could easily use a number of generic "bugs milling about" shots, but these are planned, choreographed and executed for maximum graphic appeal. Focus is good and the bug action is fascinating - many shots are even over-cranked in beautiful slow motion. We see ants arranging the bodies of their dead in long funeral rows, a chilling vision. What looks like a multi-phyla, multi-tribe meeting shows a number of incredibly enlarged ant, each with a distinctive badge on its forehead. The little emblems can't be bigger than pinheads -- how'd they do that? The proof that Phase IV is working is that we follow their strategies without one word of explanatory voiceover. We understand what they're doing... Glenn Erickson
Further information here, here and here.
Additional Phase IV screenshots can be viewed by clicking on this link...