Last Call

You need to watch the trippiest sci-fi movie ever before it leaves Hulu this month

Phase IV was an artist's chance to change sci-fi forever. It didn't do that, but it comes close.

After 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968, science fiction movies changed. Just like Nirvana opened up new ideas of rock music, Stanley Kubrick’s high-minded masterpiece suddenly had studios frantically searching for sci-fi films with meaning. A few years later in 1971, Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain redefined the genre yet again with a tense, taut thriller about fighting a virus on Earth.

Then, in 1974, Saul Bass tried to push sci-fi yet again with Phase IV. If ambition translated into results, it would be a certified classic along with those other two films. But despite mostly falling into obscurity, the director's only feature film is a gorgeous, fascinating attempt that’s worth your time despite its flaws — especially right before Halloween.

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If the name Saul Bass sounds familiar, you likely know his iconic graphic design and title cards. Bass began designing ads for films in the late 1940s, grabbing attention through minimalism and bold use of color. Advertising wasn’t typically known for subtlety, but Bass had a way of distilling an entire company or movie to a few powerful lines, confident that the viewer’s imagination would do the rest.

A collection of Bass logos

Working on Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, Bass once said that the German director gave him an idea: “Why not make it move?” The result was a stunning title sequence that would translate into a new era of Bass’ career. When Bass created the title cards for Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, it was clear that he and his wife, Elaine Makatura, were creating singular designs that would set new standards for Hollywood and the world of advertising in general.

During the 1960s, Bass would also create logos that had unusual longevity—like the AT&T globe still used today. But Bass wanted more. That would turn into Phase IV, a movie about human scientists being attacked by ants.

It’s about more than that, but not really. It won’t surprise you to learn that Bass has an incredible eye. The film’s visuals are effective and eye-grabbing, like the crop circles and towers constructed by these alien-inflected ants.

The images in Phase IV are startling.

There’s not much use here for characters beyond two scientists, played gruffly by Nigel Davenport and jokingly by Michael Murphy. Davenport, used to serious roles in films like A Man For All Seasons and a piece of sci-fi trivia for being the original voice of HAL-9000 (until Kubrik thought he sounded too British), is compelling as a scientist determined to focus on the ants while the rest of the world has moved on.

Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy

The two eventually pick up an ant survivor played by Lynn Frederick. They move with great seriousness, studying the ants, looking at remarkably cool graphics on computer screens and working in labs apparently designed by Buckminster Fuller.

The ants also get their own time on the screen. Phase IV makes sure we see these insects as protagonists, giving them close-ups as they move around. These scenes sound audacious and they are, helped along by Brian Gascoigne’s synth-driven score. You want to watch these ants, and you want to figure out what it all means.

Watching these ants is like no other nature film.

What separates 2001 and Andromeda from Phase IV is a sense of propulsion. You’re left on the edge of your seat with those films, both of which were made by directors who already had a fair amount of experience behind the camera. Kubrick and Wise were able to set up starkly different beginnings, middles, and ends for their film and kept audiences searching for the ending.

Unlike the work of Saul Bass, this (very cool) poster gives no sense of what Phase IV is like.

Phase IV lacks propulsion. Bass is content to let us gaze upon images of ants and of sunrises and of geodesic domes without any particular drive forward. It’s action sequences are at times uninspired; watching people fall to the ground in darkness screaming about ants doesn’t have the same “pop” as the rest of the film.

The movie wants to be art-house sci-fi horror but it only gets half of that equation perfectly. It feels like Bass had a passing interest at best in the science-fiction aspect of the plot and would rather just look at ants. If the film took its cues from some of the 1950s horror classics it's clearly trying to rise above, it might result in actual chills. Still, it’s hard to get too mad at a movie that tries to make you ponder nature and humanity's role on an existential level, all while using killer ants.

A 2012 discovery proved that Bass was really thinking big when he made Phase IV. It’s long-lost original ending was finally revealed. Described as “a dizzying and often disturbing montage of imagery” by the Hollywood Reporter, it has to be seen to be believed. But, to be fair, so does everything about Phase IV.

Do yourself a favor and watch Phase IV on Hulu while you still can — it leaves the streaming service on October 31. Then come back and watch this lost ending:

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