Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 17 July 2008
Source Legend Films DVD
Features Titles Designed by Saul Bass
Reviews Phase IV (by Thomas)
I remember watching Them! on television when I was younger and being absolutely terrified by a short scene in which a trooper from a small New Mexico town is consumed alive while walking outside the front window of a ransacked general store: he drops down suddenly and disappears. Because I found this scene so unsettling - at the time we lived across the street from an empty lot overpopulated by large anthills - I didn’t finish the film, and so it was some time before I saw the big dramatic reveal of the large ant dropping a human ribcage from its mandible. Both moments - the trooper’s demise and especially the large ant’s spitting out of said trooper’s remains - are classic B-movie moments. And, when you think about the villains - small, near defenseless insects vulnerable to little more than the tap of a foot or flick of two fingers - it makes sense that writers and directors transformed these small creatures into radioactive monstrosities before sending them out to wage war on American society.
But ants are abundant—what they lack in individual strength they make up for in numbers. Which is the overall foundation of Saul Bass’ Phase IV. The legendary king of credit designs abandons any manmade explanation - toxic waste, genetic mutations, etc. - and instead inverts the basic premises of his predecessors: where the ants of Them! were seen as antagonists in post-war America - the America of housewives and suburbs, of liking Ike and TV dinners, but also the society that, incidentally, created them - the ants of Phase IV are depicted as the stable and superior society, with human beings acting as the dangerous outsiders.
Phase IV opens with a short, ambiguous account of how the ants’ revolution began: A natural occurrence far removed from the hands - and the responsibility - of human beings. We’re offered this information in a voice-over monologue by James Lesko, who we will shortly meet, and played against beautiful Kubrickian shots of a sun moving between two heavenly bodies, one set precisely in front of the other—an image that not only defies the make-up of our universe but one that will appear again throughout the film. Immediately after this planetary alignment is achieved the camera’s focus shifts to a smaller universe: an intricate network of rooms and tunnels constructed completely underground by millions of ants. This six-minute montage - of hundreds of those tiny insects, each a different size and color and, to a degree, personality - displays the sudden alliance between all species of ants and is shot with a precise eye. In fact, these shots are captured with stunning, and inexplicable, precision, as many of the ants sport prop attachments between their antennae and move as though choreographed by the director himself to crawl and stand and communicate.
The ants’ first structures, seven tall dirt towers in the desert, are formed and erected with an intuitive and strangely architectural eye. Each tower is the same shape – obelisks - with the top foot angled slightly to allow an opening for sentry. When the towers are destroyed by Lesko and his superior, Dr. Ernest Hubbs, the ants quickly erect new structures: smaller and thicker, rising only two feet or so off the ground, they are built to surround Lesko and Hubbs’ geodesic laboratory with a strategic and distressingly genius purpose, as the structures’ tops are mirror-like and angled to reflect the sun’s intense heat on the lab, raising the internal temperature to almost inhospitable levels. (The computers within cannot function, we’re told, past ninety degrees and will automatically shut down, prompting the ants to sabotage the dome’s lone air-conditioner.)
Compared to the ants’ structures, the dome seems positively alien, an impression only enhanced by the large metal spheres jutting from the lab—odd mechanisms designed to emit colorful toxins, to which the ants quickly adapt. When Lesko and Hubbs leave the dome the morning after the yellow toxin is deployed, they are dressed in Hazmat suits that recall1950s space movies, and Bass doesn’t hesitate to contrast them and the dome with the basic earthiness of the surrounding desert.
In addition to their depiction as the more advanced beings, the ants are also portrayed as more principled. Where Hubbs brushes aside the deaths of a local family in his yellow-toxin attack - their bodies are discovered the morning after, preserved in a sheen of crystalline poison and redolent of those buried in a volcano eruption - the ants honor their dead, dragging their bodies back into the nest and lining them up in single-file lines to be mourned over. Again Bass renders a contrast between the two animals: While human bodies are left out in the desert, covered in poison manufactured by other humans, the ant bodies are given a repose of honor and dignity—a wake befitting soldiers. The ants are, in a sense, more human than the half-dozen human characters.
Not that Bass avoids drawing parallels between the human characters and the ants. As Lesko and Hubbs arrive in the desert, they pass through an abandoned town where bare telephone poles seem to foreshadow the ants’ obelisk towers and empty lots foreshadow a deserted field where ants have eaten a large circle around a square of crops—also a simultaneous nod to the opening image of a smaller sphere set against a larger sphere. This comes before the same image appears in the early-morning inspection by Lesko and Hubbs - the border of yellow poison surrounding the laboratory dome - as well as shots of the small dispensers outside the lab and, most importantly, a message of shapes transmitted by the ants and deciphered by Lesko: a tiny circle in a large circle, which Lesko interprets as the ants denoting a person’s location in the dome—a person they want. The image’s last appearance comes as Lesko approaches the entrance to the ants’ nest, a large hole in the bottom of an even larger crater.
On top of being a great B-movie, Them! works as a not-so-subtle condemnation of America’s atomic age. There are no blatant social commentaries in Saul Bass’ Phase IV. And yet it’s twice as terrifying, namely because the main characters - not just Lesko and Hubbs, but the local farmers - are completely helpless. Their reliance on science and aggression only deepens their conflict with the allied ant colonies; when Lesko announces that he’s decided to abandon violence in favor of what can only be called diplomacy via a machine that translates messages, Hubbs slights him, even though the decision starts a bizarre dialogue that ultimately - though without any deep explanation - saves Lesko.