Misunderstood and tampered with at the moment of its production and initial release, Phase IV – the sole feature film made by design genius Saul Bass – was born to fulfill the destiny of a cult film: eventually championed, re-released in its proper form (on DVD), and cherished by a horde of fans. It deserves every bit of fame it can scrape up.
Beyond everything else that can be said about it, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) introduced a special, major torsion in the history of science fictional cinema during the 1960s and ‘70s. The film posed the paradox that much SF literature has danced around, but necessarily with less evidential means: it narrates the story of human creatures who eventually pass beyond human consciousness. Yet how exactly can that be coherently narrated, then, if human subjectivity is deemed passé by the final frames?
2001, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), the first Solaris (Andri Tarkovsky, 1972), the fascinating ‘inner space’ variation Brainstorm (1983) again by Trumbull, and – very boldly – Phase IV solve this problem via a quick exit: the ultimate son et lumière show will take us to the gateway of a higher, post-human, cosmic consciousness without much explanation, just with a frisson of metamorphosis that sends us, as spectators, out into the street dazzled and properly befuddled.
A few decades later, Claire Denis will take up the challenge again, for the age of quantum physics, at the close of her head-spinning High Life (2018) – while James Gray’s intensively compromised Ad Astra (2019) scurries back to familiar co-ordinates of the familial and all-too-human – and De Palma’s disarming Mission to Mars (2000) treads a path somewhere between the two. Clint Eastwood’s no-nonsense take on the interplanetary travel genre in Space Cowboys (2000) brought things down to the ground in a jolting fashion: all there is at the end, as Sinatra sings “Fly Me to the Moon”, is a lonely human corpse, and the dark visor of a space suit that provides a neat cut-to-black.
Some of these films end up dissolving themselves (as does Zabriskie Point, 1970), disintegrating into abstract particles, beams of light … or flying off in impossible aerial POV lifts (as in Solaris) … or, at the very least, evoking, in a more traditional farewell trope, a thorough atomisation of the human scale within the vastness of outer space, as the hero on his craft shrinks to a dot within the frame (Silent Running). A curious micro-budget variation: Peter Wollen’s alien-in-Palestine Friendship’s Death (1987) entering, at the last, into the (unavoidably cheesy) video-encode of a non-human language left behind by Friendship (Tilda Swinton), never to return to the diegetic frame of the story (Olivier Assayas performed the same move with the mock-Lettrist plunge at the conclusion of Irma Vep ) …
The borders and boundaries of narrative worlds, and the comprehensibility of those worlds: that’s always what is at stake in these diverse films. If there is voice-over narration (something Kubrick avoided altogether for 2001, while extensively mining this ‘literary’ technique elsewhere), it will run out, stop dead, vanish, evaporate, eventually contradict its own status as an observing-controlling consciousness. If there is a nominal hero with the usual assumed in-built subjectivity, that subjectivity is eventually going to be flung to the winds of time and space, pulverised or expanded ad infinitum (as with the Star Child). A certain strain of avant-garde fantastique fiction, in literature and film, grimly or drolly, goes the shrinking-freezing route: consciousness finally turned to ice, in Anna Kavan’s novel Ice (1967) or Raúl Ruiz’s short Histoires de glace (1987) … or, momentarily, into stones at a comic highpoint of Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022).
In some sense, it’s all the project of German Romanticism, and its hippity-hoppity, start-stop historic legacy: the Sublime, in short, that vast ‘overcoming’ which is impossible to convey within the tools offered by a rational, individual mind, but an irresistible temptation to thought-experiment and artistic fancy. I’ve mentioned the prized SF notion of inner space (i.e., the imaginative mind); what Sublime SF gestures toward is the moment in time and space when Inner Space and Outer Space lock together in a mutually transforming fusion. Humanity may lose its sovereignty, and (as we say these days) the Anthropocene reaches its end, but whatever Wonders we have had inside our private and collective unconsciousnesses will go spraying out, at the last, like fabulous pigments or crystals into the void, helping paint the scene of the intergalactic future.
How curious it is that at least two major creators of the loose genre I am evoking – Bass and Trumbull – come to live-action cinema via the animated worlds of credits design and/or special effects … and that, when Terrence Malick tackles a non-SF tale of transcendental consciousness in The Tree of Life (2011) and its doco-collage spin-off, the Godfrey Reggio-style Voyage of Time (2016), it’s to Trumbull that he turns as his ‘visionary’ collaborator/consultant.
Phase IV presents itself as, more or less, the ruins of a sublime story that is impossible to shape and narrate. The premise is simple – ants (divided hierarchically into the Queen, workers, and rank-and-file) get together, evolve, and take over the world, subjugating and incorporating the human race – and it is introduced, without the slightest elaboration or further explanation, in the matter-of-fact manner of a J.G. Ballard set-up: the “events of space” (planets moving around each other, visualised in animation) create an “effect” – presumably, an evolutionary and ecological mutation – on Earth. That’s all, folks! You’ll never (as a mere human) understand it, so don’t bother to try.
Both central male characters get a voice-over track, and these are alternated with no particular logic (beyond the base needs of story exposition): James (Michael Murphy, at this point well on the path of becoming a Robert Altman regular) has the more conventional ‘inner’ voice that somehow gets through to the final images – even as human consciousness, we may surmise, is becoming extinct as it is subsumed into the great ant-mind – and Ernest (Nigel Davenport), the cold-hearted scientist who rapidly goes mad once bitten by a lab-specimen ant, is represented by read-out extracts from his field diary.
Thus, two species of impossibility, recruited in all their fuzziness: James’ voice-over is ‘looking back from the future’, but his mind probably won’t even exist in the story’s near future; while Ernest’s journal entries are an old trick of Romantic literature (including, in amour fou mode, George du Maurier’s Peter Ibbetson ): the merely textual ‘remains’ of some intrepid explorer or wanderer who has been sucked into the very marrow of the thing he was obsessively exploring (Werner Herzog’s films occasionally draw on this trope, as do the mind-boggling stories of R.A. Lafferty).
Scene by scene, Phase IV is extraordinary. It’s never quite ‘all together’ as a narrative or a film – but it can’t be, and its awareness of that fact is part of its canniness and deathless appeal. Naturally, as we’d expect of Bass, the film is, first and foremost, an amazing species of ‘design object’: the landscapes, the places (mainly just a single laboratory compound), the effects, the passages of animation, the scarily ‘scientific’ micro-photo-footage (reminiscent of the faux-anthropological-doc The Hellstrom Chronicle ) are blended superbly.
The film is a fantasia on scale, and the interrelation of scales: the heroic journeys of anonymous ants who, in a relay, convey a dead comrade’s body to the Queen, or climb up and through the dress of a young woman (Lynne Frederick as Kendra), become strangely admirable to us (even as, imaginatively, they threaten our very existence!).
It's a film where any image, any scene, any montage can (and frequently do) go on forever – to complain of ‘stretching’ thin or scant plot material is wholly beside the point. Maybe it’s a Slow Cinema of the Coming Ant Consciousness? Sometimes we are gazing at those little creatures, and we hardly have a clue what they’re ‘saying’ to each other, or doing exactly; but never mind, your understanding (or lack thereof) will all be gobbled up, anyhow, by the end of things. Cinema, with its inherent spectacularity and literality, brings these paradoxes to a point of paroxysm far quicker than the word-musings of even an Ursula K. Le Guin (sounding the unnegotiable otherness of other minds) can manage on the page.
Meanwhile, Brian Gascoigne’s remarkable electronic music score does a good job of moving between conventional-sounding suspense/danger tropes and more indistinct sonic atmospheres and wave vibrations. Philip Brophy notes in a splendid 1999 essay that the film should be studied, both sound- and image-wise, in terms of “how water, wind and land merge” in a neo-Gothic horror tradition.
There is a moment when the flighty Kendra – blaming herself for everything that has gone wrong, but perhaps also sensing that the ants have a Higher Destiny voluptuously in store for her (signalled by an ant-meets-girl scene that mixes a key scene of Bergman’s Persona  with a premonition of Twin Peaks: The Return ) – decides to flee the tenuous safety of the lab and sacrifice herself for the Greater Good. Here Bass and writer Mayo Simon (who worked on several SF scripts; one of his kids made it to TV’s X-Files team) pull out a fabulous bit of craft: what Gérard Genette defined (quite differently to how the term mostly gets applied today) as a metalepsis. Here it is: Kendra disappears, we may presume she dies off-screen (as Ernest dies, comeuppance-wise, on-screen), and we return to our other central characters. But when we see her again, arising full-body out of sand, we realise that much has changed in the interim, while she was out of our sight: now she is a transformed New Creature, ready to embrace the hero-at-the-end-of-his-earthly-tether James.
What follows that at-first spooky reunion is a freaky, psychedelic montage worthy of Kenneth Anger (R.I.P.) and, in fact, replete with his fancy imagery of divine-and/or-satanic metamorphosis (like burning sun-circles in foreheads). Didn’t Anger himself detect the stealthy pop culture appropriation of his most visionary imagery in another SF tale of impossible-to-convey communication with aliens, namely Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)?
In Phase IV, however, these final fireworks don’t herald the birth of an epic Star Child; the very final sunrise shots (rather John Ford-ian, to make the Spielberg loop) of human and then ant figures in the landscape are calm and contemplative, as the last-ever human voice-over informs us: “We knew then, we were being changed and made part of their world. We didn’t know for what purpose. But we knew we would be told”. Then – in another brilliant effect of structure – a supered title tells us that Phase IV of this mysterious Evolutionary Plan has finally kicked in … but the film can’t and won’t tell us what that is. It ends on a threshold, a border. Beyond that, we cannot go. Free your mind; lose your mind. Cinema can help us in this supra-consciousness quest of rebirth … and it certainly tried to do so, energetically, in the 1960s and ‘70s.
© Adrian Martin 28 May 2023