You know who Saul Bass is, even if you don’t. But Saul Bass isn’t (only) what you think. He’s also the guy who stepped forward to welcome our new insect overlords. That’s what the man does in Phase IV, the only film he ever directed, and probably the best bug-fuck mind-fuck movie in existence.
A shame, as practically no one has seen it — but that’s because Phase IV is not what you think and, also, in Phase IV, things are not what you think — but we’ll get there.
Firstly, most know the name Saul Bass in relation to his brilliant, award-winning work as a title designer. Those distinctively stunning title sequences that launched films by Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, and many other — all designed by Saul Bass.
Here’s a brief refresher if his name brings nothing instantly to mind:
Having achieved such success with his art, Bass in 1974 moved from designing titles, movie posters, and logos (such as those for AT&T and United Airlines), and directing sequences in other director’s films (including the prologue to West Side Story and debatably the shower scene in Psycho) to helming his own film: Phase IV.
Phase IV, as you can tell from the non-Saul Bass designed poster, reveals the gory tale of ant invaders from space who eat us from the inside out. But it’s not what you think.
I can tell that’s so because almost everyone thought what you think, then they didn’t see Phase IV, and it flopped hard.
Yes. Phase IV, written by Mayo Simon, does involve some space ants and, indeed, some invasive conquering — but what film doesn’t? Or what film worth watching doesn’t?
From it’s opening images of planetary alignment and its voice-over concerning magnetic fields and spiritual discombobulation, Phase IV does not so much remind of a cheesy B-movie but of no less than 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is clearly a film directed by a man — Saul Bass — who understood visual communication and the language of style. Working with cinematographer Dick Bush and wildlife photographer Ken Middleham, Bass spins a story that quickly leaves the realm of reason, unless you reason like a space ant.
We are told a cosmic confluence sparked something strange in the desert of Arizona. We see, in extreme close up, the ants. They are up to something anty with their flickering antennae and gribbly mouthparts. They look, frankly, awesome.
These are no giant rubber bugs waving plastic feelers at mouth-clutching starlets. These are real, real tiny, ants in smooth geometrical tunnels, moving with purpose, plotting your doom. And you may think “how could that be possible?” but you don’t think like an ant and that’s the whole point.
Phase IV thinks like an ant. Or, rather, like a lot of ants.
The cast primarily consists of three players: Nigel Davenport is Dr Ernest Hubbs, the serious entomologist who’s sussed the danger; Michael Murphy (whom you may recognize from MAS*H) plays game theorist / cryptographer James Lesko, tasked with interpreting to and from ant; and the impossibly lovely Lynne Frederick, one-time wife to both Peter Sellers and David Frost, is Kendra, the impossibly lovely girl who thinks like neither man nor any ant.
Into a deserted desert, our scientists delve. There they set up shop in a geodesic lab, filled with 1974’s versions of supercomputers. They construct their citadel with a speed that’s superhuman — or impossible — depending on whether or not you still think your thought processes reign supreme, which they don’t. We have already entered the world of the ant.
Outside this gleaming base, a series of towers stand like vast organ pipes constructed by insects. During phase I, our protagonists and (sorry) antagonists square off. You think you know how this will go, but what you think doesn’t matter, unless you’re an ant.
For in Phase IV, things happen that might make sense, or mightn’t, if only you could get your mandibles around them. Could ants do the things they do in this film? What about people? In the past I’ve written about the scarcity of truly alien concepts in cinema, but Phase IV dares to travel there, exposing the unknowable mind of the space ant. You could understand too if only you’d deign to lower yourself into their hill, to face their queen.
As the film progresses through phases II and III, there is death, and battle, and a tug of war of intelligences. All is oblique and otherworldly and just liminally not right. Also; its beautifully, sleekly, insectually stunning. As you gawp, the thoughts you think twist through tiny tunnels and emerge yellow, and adapted, and magnetically tempered and proven.
Admit it. The ants are right. They are superior. Fight if you must, but slough off your sense of entitlement for this world is no longer yours.
Saul Bass keeps Phase IV ahead and off-kilter the whole way through. I was enrapt from start to finish. Upon its release, however, Paramount Pictures felt otherwise. They shied from the fullness of the director’s vision, cutting the final five minutes of the film — phase IV — to soften the ending.
It didn’t help. People weren’t ready to think like ants, even softened ants. The film tanked.
Now, however, Bass’ final phase is available for view and it is as psychedelically astounding as anything Kubrick did in his saga of otherworldly intelligences. Phase IV is a trip down and in. It is pulsing of your mind and a fracturing of your psyche. It is totally bug-fuck crazy awesome.
Seek it out. Watch what genius Saul Bass attempted. Appreciate his alien ideas and think you’ve pushed past the skin of sanity — then watch phase IV below, including the original ending, now newly available only as an extra feature if you rent the film through iTunes.
If you want to survive, you must adapt, submit, and succumb to cinema. Start with Saul Bass’ Phase IV.
Now how wonderful to see a review of one of my all time favourite films on your blog!!
I first watched Phase IV when I was a young girl late night on TV. I zipped into it when it had already begun and I had no clue what I was watching, but felt immediately intrigued and hooked. Much later I learned what I had seen and watched the film again several times. I still think it is a creation of mysterious beauty and alarmingly smart in its assessments of men and ants. And if I didn’t love the film for all that it had shown, I would still be in awe of it just for the title and final sequences! This is how I want to be intrigued when going to the cinema or watching a flick.
THANK YOU for paying homage to Saul Bass’s great mind child!
You’re very welcome! This was my first, but not last, viewing of it and I totally adored it. I have no idea why this film isn’t considered as classic as Forbidden Planet or Blade Runner.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed for a cinema re-release with the restored ending. Or at least a Critereon Blu-ray release.
Oh my, I would fly across the globe if there was a cinema re-release to be had anywhere!! I will keep my fingers cross and I second your notion regarding the film classic tag!
You know, your article here made me once more ponder about how come that SF cinema of the 70s and 80s had and still does exert so much impact on me, while most of the enormously impressive (in matters of high-tech and SFX) flicks of the past ten years have done near nothing to stay in my memories. When I think of Science Fiction classics I remember the Omega Strain, Phase IV, 2001, Blade Runner, SIlent Running and such. But The Matrix (part 1) was probably the last SF flick that had similar lasting impact on me.
And yet, there is the occasional odd jewel in store for us from nowadays directors! I watched EX MACHINA last night and I was in love, deeply in love with it. I know it is not yet out in the States (strangely so), but you should try to get your hands on this fantastic little masterpiece of a twisted Turing test. It has my thumbs up.
I’m looking forward to that one! Looks very insidious. But you’re forgetting Children of Men, which deserves to be on everyone’s list. And I think you’re overly kind to Silent Running…
oh my, how could I forget Children of Men!!! You are absolutely right. That was a profoundly moving cinema experience, one I repeated about 10 times at the movies and several times at home. A true masterpiece no doubt!
Now you two have got me looking at science fiction of the past 25 years, and it is pretty depressing. Mostly lasers and spaceships and whatnot. Little in the way of using the genre thoughtfully. Or as out and out weirdly as Phase IV (which by the way, we all missed the screening in L.A. a couple of years ago when the Cinefamily showed it–with the original ending).
The ’90s are where SF went to die. In the aughts, aside from Children of Men, there are a handful of intriguing ones: The Wild Blue Yonder, Primer, 2046, Eternal Sunshine, District, and Moon. That’s all I could come up with.
Sadly enough you are absolutely right! That’s why one has to promote what little is there in good SF in order to push awareness towards a return to Science Fiction as a mean of thinking and expressing where mankind otherwise does not dare to go. Especially in time of political correctness and all that nonsense there has to be an artistic niche where writers and filmmakers must be able to voice true concerns and to project unwanted visions of our now and tomorrow. This might sound terribly manifesto alike, but I truly believe that there is high need for a renaissance of storytelling in this genre and for a revival of its ones important role in human visions of their future. A mind-numbing onslaught of Special Effects driven boombastic action flicks certainly won’t do nor the ever so self-replicating rise of superhero comic films. Give us stories, tales, journeys of heroes that truly touch people instead of computer generated no-verses.
I will add Monsters to this list.
I would also like to add John Dies at the End and Upstream Color but neither quite fits.
District 9, I mean. Damn typos!
District 9 half worked for me say until 2 third into the movie. But I have the very strange impression that the Director has a problem with attention span and always loses the plot at about that point in his flicks. Maybe my misconception but that’s how it felt to me. And I would definitely NOT add Elysium into the list of good SF flicks of recent times. That one sucked big time imho.
I realize I missed your list at the end! I loved Moon, truly did. Eternal Sunshine certainly belongs into the list of memorable flicks as well as The Wild Blue Yonder. 2046 is a visual masterpiece but I would not consider it a SciFi film just because of those few imaginary interludes that show people on a train in supposed futuristic clothes. But the film totally bewitched me, its visuals, the colours are intoxicatingly beautiful and do induce some kind of stonedness, an intense feeling of witnessing something so beautiful you want to weep. Sorry I might have gotten carried away with this one, but it certainly is otherwordly in its effect on one’s emotions.
That’s funny. Remembering 2046, all I’m picturing is a weird future city and a train speeding through it, and of course the sad beauty of it all.
Looks like the full version also screened at LACMA in ’13. No negative of the original ending mentioned, just a print discovered, restored for a digital presentation. I hope someone’s working up a blu-ray release.