Twenty years after the giant ants of Warner Brothers Them!, we get Phase IV, a smart small-budget affair which gives us a somewhat different ant threat to human civilization. Despite the poster above, there are no giant ants in this movie. Clearly Paramount wanted a sci-fi exploitation monster flick, they got something else. All the ants are normal sized if not normal. There are cosmic events which seem to pass by the Earth without effect save for what they do to the world's ant population. The ants, all species, undergo an evolutionary jump and suddenly display a willingness to work together and seemed graced with a new intelligence. This is Phase I.
Phase II begins when this intelligence is revealed in their new penchant for building geometic shapes and structures. A scientist named Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) seems to be onto the new ant ways and brings in a math specialist named James Lesko (Michael Murphy) to help him understand the new patterns he's detected.
The two of them occupy a special self-contained laboratory inside a geodesic dome in an area presumably evacuated of its human occupants, largely farm folk. But not everyone has left and the ants attack a local farmer and drive him and his family out, killing three of them but a young girl named Kendra (Lynne Frederick) survives and joins Hubbs and Lesko inside the dome.
As Phase III gets underway, the belligerent Hubbs is bitten and becomes increasingly erratic as he imagines himself pitted in a contest of wills with the ants. Lesko is less convinced of the fullness of the threat and keeps trying to contact the ants which he is convinced are able to do so. Kendra is mostly bewildered by it all throughout. Eventually the ants set up specialized pillars which reflect the sun's heat onto the dome and begin the slow and steady process of driving the scientists out. Hubbs and Lesko counter but after their air conditioner and communications are destroyed by kamikaze ants they see little recourse save to kill the queen they suspect lives inside a distant mound.
The ants indicate they want only one of the three people, Hubbs. They seem to seek revenge for his many attacks on them. Kendra thinks they want her and she goes outside and sacrifices herself to the ants. Afterwards Hubbs falls victim to them and Lesko is left alone to attack the queen's nest but finds only Kendra inside the nest, transformed and waiting for him so that together they can enter the Phase IV of the ants' schemes to take over the world, to effectively become their slaves.
This is a smooth story, rendered quietly and with limited action. So if you like your sci-fi full of chills and spills, this movie will disappoint. But if like me, you like your entertainment a little smarter from time to time, this might be the ticket.
Both Murphy and Davenport give sturdy performances, but it is really the alluring and weirdly quiet performance of Frederick as Kendra which gives this movie the shivers. She has a beautiful and distracting face and throughout the movie her motives remain obscured.
The movie has long long sections of just detailed ant movements. These are rendered with fascinating detail and in places have real dramatic power. These sections make this movie unlike most any other I've seen. I first grokked this flick in college (only a few years after its release) as part of some class or other and it remained with me. I've seen it maybe two times since.
The ending is a little vague, but sufficient to the task at hand and it does give us an upbeat ending (of sorts) for a movie which seemed all about extinction. Apparently the director Saul Bass had filmed a trippy LSD-like ending similar to that in 2001 A Space Odyssey, but that got knicked out by the powers-that-were before its release. You can see some bits of the ending in this trailer.