Inhuman Geometries: Saul Bass’s “Phase IV

So much of what is weird or uncanny hinges on a particular facet of narrative craft and personal experience: perspective. The weirdness of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” comes from the eerie sentience of the landscape surrounding the explorers – or the imagination of the explorers working them over in the absence of discernable human presence. The weirdness of a story like H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time,” meanwhile, is generated in part by the collapse of perspective between a human being, Nathaniel Peaslee, and an alien being “possessing” the human’s mind, a Yithian; the human perceives what the alien perceives in its own world, with its own strange sights and sounds, which seem alien to the human – and to readers who belong to the same world as Nathaniel, no doubt. It’s a horrifying experience, but also capable of invoking awe. So much of what can be termed alien or inexplicable can also be explained or justified by the limits of our own decidedly anthropocentric perspectives: what we can see, what we can hear, etc., and ultimately what we can understand. One of the great strengths of weird fiction and art, then, is the potential to confront the human perspective with a nonhuman perspective. In that regard, Phase IV merits considerable admiration, if not at least exposure.

Phase IV occupies a unique place in cinematic history, for various reasons. The director, Saul Bass, never directed anything else after Phase IV. It was not successful with the movie-going public at large when it came out in 1974, which was likely a factor in the lack of Bass’s directorial career after the fact. Bass also had difficulty with the distributor of the film, which cut roughly six minutes of the original ending before Phase IV hit theaters, lending the resultant ending an unexpectedly clipped quality (more on that later). If the name Saul Bass sounds familiar to you, it’s likely because he was a legendary graphic designer and storyboard artist who made a Hollywood legend for himself with his iconic title sequences and film posters for movies like North by Northwest, Psycho, Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, and many more.

PhaseIVIf you look at the original poster for the film, you might assume that Phase IV is an apocalyptic piece of sci-fi horror about killer ants coming after the human race with a vengeance. Note the screaming intensity of the image, the bloody hole in the palm, the fires raging in the background as a silhouetted couple flee for their lives from evil ants. The poster positively screams B‑movie. That said, while the movie does hinge on the conflict between ant and human, and there is an implied threat to humanity posed by the ants, it is certainly not a pure B‑movie. In reality, it’s a hybrid of science fiction thriller and art movie, in many respects.

Visually, the movie is obsessed with geometry, shapes, angles. A running theme through the movie is shots of the various geometric creations of both ant and human. For the ants, we have tall angular pillars rising out of the earth, reflective obelisks, vast crop circles, and what can only be described as reverse-anthills. Beyond what the ants create, meanwhile, there’s the geodesic dome that serves as the home base for the human protagonists, itself surrounded by metal globes attached to the dome with long piping. Before long, you’ll begin keeping track of every circle and globe, every angular obelisk and sharp corner. Human characters draw squares in the dust on a porch handrail. Ants fry a motherboard by holding together in the shape of a circle, sacrificing themselves. Our intrepid human scientists visualize the “language” of the ants on a computer screen in fluctuating parabolic arcs. Everyone, everything, is making and surrounded by tightly defined geometric shapes. Everyone is encircled by something and in turn encircling something.

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A word about our human scientists: despite the fact they are tasked with studying the sudden uplift in ant intelligence, caused by ripple effects of vaguely defined cosmic events (not the “terror out in space” teased by the movie’s poster), they are not our heroes per se. They are certainly not our sole viewpoint characters, and the movie is not solely concerned with their situation. Rather, a significant chunk of the movie’s energies is invested in establishing the ants themselves as protagonists in this story. Phase IV starts with the ants and their evolution, their swarming, their collective will and identity and how they exert themselves in nature, mastering it. They descend on a spider, stripping it clean with a frightening, yet awe-inspiring, efficiency. But later in the movie, the ants also display traits of what we would consider higher consciousness – traits that viewers operating in an anthropocentric viewpoint would consider “human.” They sacrifice their lives to save one another. They mourn their brethren in what can only be considered as an ant graveyard. And, in the end, they have far different designs on humanity than the characters could have possibly understood in the course of the movie. It would be entirely possible to argue that the ants are in fact the most important viewpoint characters.

An ant's-eye view of our human scientists.

An ant’s-eye view of our human scientists.

Which brings us back around to the concept of perspective. Phase IV, evenly split (more or less) between the human protagonists and the ant forces makes us keenly aware of the fact that both sides have their own perspectives, limited by physiology, cognitive chemistry, and use of environment. The collective mind of the ants vs. the individualist minds of the humans could have made for more simplistic survivalist conflict, but in Phase IV this conflict illuminates startling similarities between the ants and humans. Besides the aforementioned similarities in emotional expression, both are capable of seemingly wanton destruction. For instance, in one of the most horrifying and beautiful scenes of the movie, the ant forces reduce a house to flaming splinters, chasing a human family to the geodesic dome. The scientists’ response to this apparent security breach? Activating the facility’s vast pesticide system, which has unfortunate effect for both the ants and the pursuant family.

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The scene following – the immediate landscape, caked in dry yellow pesticide – looks like a little apocalypse in its own right. And in the wake of destruction like this, both sides are pushed to evolve, even if the ants are quite frankly better at it than humanity.

In such a movie, themes of survival undoubtedly arise, and they do in the case of Phase IV. The humans feel threatened by the development of the ants and what they could do to humanity. One of the scientists, Ernest Hubbs, is primarily concerned with survival, via control of the ant population. The other scientist, James Lesko, is similarly concerned, but his approach to survival is understanding the ants and communicating to them, sentient being to sentient beings. In the absence of an alphabet, however, Lesko turns to something more universal, with a little help from computer science: mathematics. Ergo, the computer generation of the ants’ language in parabolas, and the transmission of messages back and forth, manipulating shapes instead of letters.

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The genius of this is that the geometry of the movie becomes the central focus. The obelisks and crop circles created by the ants aren’t just strange things meant to weird humans out, nor are they merely there to serve as visually arresting artifacts. They are honest attempts at communication, which humans have responded to with either bafflement or violence, which in turn prompts the ants into violence. Suffice it to say, the characters that fare best in this movie are the ones that understand the limitations of their own perspective, and the existence of the agency and motive of the ants, seeing them as more than just things to be crushed under heel. The endings of this movie – both the theatrical version and the extended version, only recently rediscovered and screened – bear this out, showing that the shared fate of ant and human is a remarkably psychedelic, visionary, and compassionate one, once perspectives are properly aligned and overlapped. Maybe someone can get to work on making a definitive home-video edition someday with the original ending restored. As decent as the theatrical ending is, the actual intended ending – currently available on YouTube – gives useful context for the film’s final images.

In retrospect, the failure of this movie at the box office may come down to poor marketing more than anything else. Who wouldn’t look at the poster for Phase IV and assume some kind of B‑movie creature feature? Not that such a movie wouldn’t offer its own visceral, fun thrills. But Phase IV is a different creature entirely. It’s a cerebral, challenging, visually stunning piece of 1970s American science fiction that enweirds the human perspective by challenging it with a nonhuman one. It asks a lot of tricky questions regarding sentience, culture, evolution, violence, communication, and the privilege that humanity often assumes in the environment at large and the great chain of being. At the very least, it’ll make you rethink every anthill you see.

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3 replies to “Inhuman Geometries: Saul Bass’s “Phase IV

  1. Well done.

    I watched that mothertrucker on the big screen, age four. It…seems to have worked.

  2. Saw the film last night on Turner Classic Movies, a highly cerebral motion picture with the scientist actually acting the way real researchers act