Phase IVrecommended viewing

People get killed sometimes.
★★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1974
Director: 
Saul Bass
Starring: 
Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick
The Setup: 
Ants suddenly become super-intelligent and kick the asses of humans.
Discussion: 

This is one of those movies that TOTALLY BLEW MY MIND when I saw it on TV as a teenager, and I have never forgotten it. I have owned it on VHS at least twice, and eventually just got rid of it, which makes me feel like a total fool now, as used VHS copies of this long out-of-print gem now START at $40! I became re-possessed to see it a few weeks ago, and when I finally found a copy for the relatively modest price of $20, I snapped that shit up! I fully plan to finance my retirement from its resale at some point in the future.

What I did not know back then is that this is the only feature film Saul Bass ever made. Please tell me you know who Saul Bass is. He is the acclaimed graphic designer who did the very stylized credits for North by Northwest, Psycho, The Man With the Golden Arm, Vertigo, and Bunny Lake is Missing, among others.

The movie opens with the sun coming around between two planets and lining up, then transforming into some trippy space effects. A voiceover says “That spring we were all watching events in space, wondering what the final effect would be. Mystics predicted earthquakes…” but eventually mankind decides that nothing happened. But oh, how wrong they were! Because somehow during the celestial shenanigans, intelligence was beamed into the little brains of ants. We then have a long sequence [accompanied by Moog synthesizer soundtrack] that shows ants communicating with each other using sign language. Or just waving their little antennas and legs around, I can’t tell which, but they are edited together in such a way as to make it look like they’re holding a little mini-conference. We then see some other ant activities in the changed hive, and see [though not clearly enough to be sure] that these ants have multiple queens pumping out eggs. All of this is quite cleverly accomplished with real ants, which is the main thing that keeps this entire movie from becoming out-and-out cheese. I don’t think we have a fake ant anywhere [though many of them do look a little drugged], and this adds immeasurably to the film, as I don’t think anything [even modern CGI] could successfully approximate an ant’s unique, jerky movements.

But Dr. Ernest Hobbs has been studying the little buggers. Turns out the ants in some remote area of Arizona are doing some weird shit, like rival species working and living together, making raids to kill their predators, and basically just taking over the place. He calls on the services of Jim Lesko, who made advances in understanding dolphin language, and they go out to establish a little research facility. Before we head into the lab, we have a creepy scene of driving through a huge area laid out for a subdivision where streets were laid out but houses never built [perhaps we are supposed to believe that there were houses but the ants demolished them], although there are a few destroyed houses. We can see that the wood was disintegrated by the ants boring these little holes into the wood, and soon we see a dead sheep which, in one of the films indelible images that has stayed with me since I was 13, also have little holes bored into them. And it would seem that the ants have created this crop-circle thing with a geometrical shape, and these awesomely spooky towers that are somewhat akin to the Easter Island sculptures in how their eerie design wordlessly convey the advanced and inscrutable intelligence of the ants, without anyone having to come out and say it.

We then meet these two old timers and their lovely grabddaughter who just loves to ride horses and may as well have “love interest” written on her forehead. The grandparents refuse to evacuate as, like, EVERYONE in town has, because they have this super-snazzy moat that they’ve filled with gasoline and, should ants attack, they’ll just light the moat and be fine! Amazingly, the gas in the moat never just seeps into the ground or evaporates during the several days it’s in there. Plus, uh… fire hazard? Anyway, please don’t miss the part where grandma says “You want to know what I think?” and the men just start talking amongst themselves, completely ignoring her. But grandma’s a little dotty anyway.

So the two scientists, Jim and Hobbs, settle into their fully-sealed dome, which is totally space-age and featuring numerous six-foot computers with reel to reel tapes, but is wholly powered by a generator outside located in this rickety old truck. It IS a bit odd to see this nasty beat-up truck right outside this wholly futuristic biodome, but this is addressed later. They listen to the sounds of the ants [do ants communicate primarily by sound? Isn’t it by chemicals and movement?], and beam sounds to the ants. Jim is at work deciphering the ant language, and so far has discerned ‘stop’ and ‘go,’ and, seemingly a month later, has only then translated ‘left’ and ‘right.’ Anyway, as always, their funding threatens to dry up, and they need to prod the ants to take action. So Hobbs goes out and blows up the cool towers. Hobbs has a beard and favors Indiana Jones-type khaki explorer outfits [that are somewhat snug], and although he’s not that great when seen up close, he attracts the eye [okay, MY eye] from a distance, and although I don’t remember him at all from seeing the movie when I was young, I KNOW I must have been into him when I was but a babe and far less discriminating, as back then I basically liked anyone with a beard. I'm pleased to say that I have since grown and changed. Now they have to have a beard AND a big dick.

The ants start making a lot of noises about the destruction, and thankfully Jim has his ant translation machine working, and he discerns that they are essentially telling each other to walk in a circle. Over and over again. But these ants don’t get mad—they get even. And in a move sure to endear them to me, they don’t attack the scientists who messed with them, they attack the innocent family instead. They make little bark boats and float across the gasoline sea. Then the horse goes all crazy, then the idiot granddaughter [evidence of this will accrue later] gets all upset, and they go outside and light the gas moat, and are attacked by the ants. The ants have also pretty much gnawed their home apart. So they throw the granddaughter in the back of the pickup and drive OVER the burning gasoline trench [to no appreciable harm], but soon there’s an ant in granddad’s hair and grandma freaks out and they have a car accident [with the idiot granddaughter in the back of the pickup—although she shows no bruising later]. They drive to the biodome and are hoping to be let in.

SPOILERS > > >
But it’s simply a case of terrible timing. You see, Hobbs has unleashed the yellow poison, which shoots out of these thingies outside, covering everything within a 100-foot radius, including grandma and grandpa, with very nasty biotoxins. The next morning, as Coldplay says, it was all yellow, and Jim and Hobbs discover the dead bodies, which bums Jim out hard, and that the ants made a living chain in order to disable the generator. This leads Jim to exclamations of the “Those people are dead!” variety, and for Hobbs to dismissively say “people get killed sometimes.” Around here is where all the little weird things Hobbs has been saying all along start to add up, and you realize that the fucker truly is nuts. He knows that the ants are now intelligent, and what he wants to do with this new intelligence is basically for them to understand that man is superior, to learn their place, and to “teach them their limitations.”

Wouldn’t you know, the idiot farmgirl / love interest is alive. They take her in, and immediately hop into a three-person nude shower. You heard me. But it’s all for decontamination purposes, all on the up and up. Once she wakes up, they learn that her name is Kendra [I about shit my pants laughing at this SO 70s name on this SO 70s Breck-girl, I-just-want-to-ride-my-horse-through-the-wildflowers type], and say that she’s in shock. They bring some ants into the lab in this sealed glass case. Kendra sees it and says “they killed my horse!” and smashes the case, releasing all of the ants! [This action accounts for 45% of why I hate her]. Kendra, what are you, five years old? Shock or not, this girl has the mental functioning of a prepubescent, even though we’re supposed to perceive her as all dewy and natural and stuff [I would quite possibly feel differently if I was straight and into her tits]. As it is now, I’m like, “Why don’t you go listen to some Sarah Mclachlan and draw pictures of your little pony and not put the rest of us in mortal danger for a while, okay? Great, thanks.”

Now follows one of the best sequences of the movie and another one that FUCKING BLEW MY MIND as an impressionable youth. We see an ant drag a piece of the yellow poison for a while until it dies [and it does DIE on screen—ants WERE harmed during the making of this film], then another ant comes and gets it, and drags it until he dies, then another… until one delivers it to the queen, who eats it [why she doesn’t die is unexplained] and a few minutes later, lays a yellow egg. Next thing you know, there’s a whole race of yellow ants, impervious to the poison!

But these ants don’t stop there. Brilliant little bastards, they build these little pyramids overnight, surrounding the dome, with reflective surfaces that are going to focus the sun and COOK the scientists inside! GO ANTS! Then the bitches arrange themselves in a circuit to blow out the scientists' communication devices, killing themselves in the process [image that blew my mind #3, above]. You see, and I hope you know this already, but ants often willingly sacrifice themselves for the larger group, and will often act like many cells in a single organism—called a superorganism. I once read this TOTALLY FUCKING FASCINATING book called Journey to the Ants by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson, and they have a theory for WHY the ants would sacrifice themselves in this way, and, just as an added bonus, I’m going to let you in on it. I’m afraid, however, that creationists will have to go draw ponies with Kendra until the next paragraph. The authors speculate that since all of the ants have the same mother [the queen], they are all sisters with the same genes, so there is no evolutionary advantage in preserving themselves in order to pass on their genes. The only advantage exists in preserving as many of the colony as possible, so they are more apt to sacrifice themselves to save the rest of the group, than preserve themselves. So put THAT in your pipe, bitches! Okay creationists, you can come back now. My, My, WHAT pretty pictures!

Anyway, so apparently the totally primitive computer equipment our scientists are saddled with ceases to function completely at precisely 90 degrees, and those nefarious ants use the nearest available praying mantis to blow out the air conditioner, causing Jim to exclaim “Damn air conditioner!” Around now you start to think… well, the ants blew out the generator a few days ago, have these fellows been existing on back-up power all this time? All of this causes the slightly more sensible Jim to break off flirtations with Kendra for a few seconds in order to say “why did you leave the power in that old truck anyway?” which is like… EXACTLY, that’s what I’m sayin’!

So anyway it only cools down at night enough to operate the computer for a few hours, and the scientists wonder why the ants let them do this. Quite a few time they ask “how do they KNOW” this or that, which I liked, because even though they aren’t offering an explanation, at least they’re acknowledging that this is a question the audience would have. So Jim sent back a geometric message to the ants [which somehow requires that a typewriter and a pen draw on PAPER simply in order to input this info into a computer], and eventually the ants respond with what is essentially an intelligence test. The ants are testing the fucking humans! Meanwhile Hobbs continues to go nuts, aggravated by this ant bite he got after Kendra freaked out. He wants to go find the queen and kill her, and that’ll be the end of it. He tells Jim to send a message to the queen, which causes Jim to bitchily respond “what makes you think she’d speak to you?”

But what of our psychologically fractured idiot farmgirl? She’s been relaxing and having her entire body crawled over by one horny ant, then asks Jim: “would you hold me for a minute?” I thought they were going to make some sensuous love right there, but no, we have a climax of a different kind on the way. Kendra asks why the ants are doing what they do, and Jim says maybe they want to punish the humans. Kendra, simple woman-child that she is, of course assumes that IT’S ALL ABOUT HER, it’s always been ALL ABOUT HER, because the ants are narked that she smashed the glass case and killed like three of them [here's the other 45%]. You want to say “Bitch, PLEASE, can’t you see that we have serious things to worry about here?” but you’d just be talking to empty air, because she gone! Now, tell me, where do passive-aggressive, self-centered little whiners go at times like this? Why, to SACRIFICE THEMSELVES, of course. Which is stupid and self-absorbed enough as it is, but loses all redemptive points and enters manipulative “cry for help” territory with the leaving of a note, saying “You’re free now!” The only reason this note doesn’t have an “i” with a frowny face for the dot is that the phrase doesn’t contain an “i.” OF COURSE the guys are going to have to go out after her, thus risking their lives, although I would advise them that they’re much better off without her, as she’ll obviously pull something like this again. Besides, people get killed sometimes.

But they don’t have to worry about it because Hobbs is completely off his nut and took off himself to destroy the queen! [And I was SO glad because I could NOT take the addition of more plot permutations by this point.] He falls down into a special trap the ants have laid just for him, and we see a bunch of dirt [which is supposed to be ants] fall all over him, and are supposed to be freaked out, then Jim goes off after the queen himself, and slides down into this huge hole into this chamber, which should have been his first clue, as these ants don’t seem that dumb, and if they’re leaving something large enough for a human to fit through…. Then Kendra rises up out of the dirt! And Jim is all like “Sweet baby! I don’t care that you’re filled with ants or whatever, let’s get it on!” [there is actually no evidence that she’s filled with ants, we don’t know what is up with her, except that she’s on Team Ant now.] She and Jim walk into the sunset and Jim says “we didn’t know what our purpose would be, but we knew we would be told.” The end.

Frankly, I don’t fully know what the ending was trying to say. Are Jim and Kendra going to make love and breed a race of human / ant babies? Are they going to go convert others, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Super Intelligent Ants? Have their minds been taken over by the ant consciousness? This is the interpretation that makes the most sense to me.

The clearest explanation I can get is that this is like the most cerebral alien invasion movie ever. My theory is that the aliens take the form of an intelligence that comes down and converts all the ants. At the end they have made some inroads on understanding the human mind [with their intelligence tests and whatnot], and now Jim and Kendra are the first humans to be fully converted or taken over by the intelligence, and now they’re going to go out and spread it. This is the only way it makes sense to me.
< < < SPOILERS END

But the beauty is, it doesn’t need to make no sense. I like that the film leaves so much unexplained—WHAT came from space, what do the ants want, HOW do they know all they do about the humans and their systems, and what happened at the end—because the rest of it is fascinating enough to sustain your interest and keep you generating your own theories.

The best thing about this movie is unquestionably the ant sequences, and the fact that they used real ants for them. The movie is very successful at convincing the audience that these ants really are intelligent, really are communicating, and it succeeds in conveying the idea of the superorganism and how very freaky that is! I have to say, I realized watching this movie again that viewing it as a teenager to a large degree formed my understanding of science!

Secondly [and maybe this is the Saul Bass influence] the designs of many of the visuals, such as the ant towers, crop symbols and the holes drilled into flesh, are so stunning and evocative that they a) really stick in your mind, and b) convey information that advances and deepens the story. What’s more, for a movie directed by a graphic designer, the design and direction are completely non-ostentatious, not over-composed, as one would expect.

I know I got a little snarky toward some elements of the story in this review, but ultimately I really like this movie and it does quite successfully blow the mind on many an occasion. And also—where are you going to see another movie like it? The only weakness would be in its attempt to shoehorn somewhat traditional plot developments into what is essentially just a really good concept. The story of the film is its weakest element, and has the unfortunate effect of getting more odious in the last half hour, as the story proper takes over. This movie is QUITE ripe for a remake that could keep the good elements and jettison the bad. Anyway, if you like real sci-fi with real scientific ideas in an overall movie unlike any you’ve seen before, this is the shit.

Should you watch it: 

If you can find it, definitely.