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Thursday, June 30, 2016

June Bugs: Phase IV (1974)

Written by Mayo Simon
Directed by Saul Bass

Nigel Davenport:  Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs
Michael Murphy:  James R. Lesko
Lynne Frederick:  Kendra Eldridge

One of the old workhorse plots of science fiction is the story of first contact between humanity and an intelligent alien race. You can tell virtually any kind of story you want with that premise--anything from monuments getting blowed up real good until the human race puts aside its cultural differences to kill a bunch of aliens right back to a shocked humanity learning that it has to shed its violent ways if it wants to join the community of civilizations out among the stars. Or, if you're John Wyndham, every time you tell that story you use the same general template:  Two intelligent species that meet but are too different to communicate will fight to the total extermination of at least one side. It's evolution writ large, it's pitiless and it's inevitable (to Wyndam). Or to Mayo Simon and Saul Bass, who directed this entry for the June Bugs review event between Cinemasochist Apocalypse and Checkpoint Telstar as part of our continuing efforts to forge alliances between silly little B movie review blogs. Bryan and I are not too different to communicate, so if we fight to the death it's only because we really want to.

Saul Bass, of course, is known for creating instantly iconic title sequences for other directors' movies; this is his first and only feature film. I wonder how much more interesting and annoying he found the process when he was responsible for the entire narrative instead of just distilling another creator's film down to its intangible essence for an opening sequence that also has to list everyone who made the film (and was important enough to get their names in the credits). Mayo Simon was another moviemaker who didn't make all that many movies--he wrote three science fiction screenplays that got produced. Phase IV was the second of them (I haven't seen Marooned outside of a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" episode and I've never seen Futureworld, so I don't have an informed opinion of how atypical this film is for him).

Judging from the poster art up there, though, I'm willing to bet the studio didn't want a movie as contemplative and elliptical as they got. Their loss. I understand that slow and meditative are qualities that are hard to sell, but anyone who walked into a theater expecting to see THE DAY THE EARTH WAS TURNED INTO A CEMETARY! and got this was likely to wind up permanently angry unless the movie won them over. I hope that it did, but judging from the fact that Saul Bass never got to direct another movie, it's more likely that this one was influential to other artists and either ignored or disliked by the audience at large. Interestingly enough, the use of special microscopic lenses to capture insect behavior that was then used in a narrative context instead of a documentary one was the center of The Hellstrom Chronicle, a semi-documentary movie about insect life released six years earlier. Wildlife photographer Ken Middleham worked on both films, so at least he got to do something he was obviously interested in.

A droning chorus and / or electronic tone suffuses the soundtrack during PHASE I (according to a title in the corner of the screen that announces itself with a very 1971 kind of electronic beep). Some sort of Space Body Convergene Event happens as organ chords swell and fade out. Our narrator says that while mankind was looking at things happening in space, they missed out on what was happening right here on Earth, because nobody thought to look at the insignificant and tiny form of life that the Space Thingy affected. Oh, and I'm sure the images flooding the screen during the cosmic whatnot would look pretty great in a big theater while the viewer was drunk or stoned (or both). It's a bit like starting your movie with a budget-conscious recreation of the last act from 2001:  A Space Odyssey. And hopefully the audience would wind up in the mood to watch a contemplative film after viewing those images. The first thing we see that isn't a planet or a screen full of solarized red lines is an ant, filmed up close at camera speeds that make it look like a stop-motion effect. The camera slowly tracks in towards an ant hill and the first of many remarkable shots of ants takes place.

The narrator turns out to be a mathematician named James Lesko; he and a biologist (Dr. Ernest Hubbs) are the two principal human characters in the film. Dr. Hubbs figured out something was weird with ants after the Cosmic Whatnot went off, and started studying them. Turns out that different species of ant tend to annihilate each other when they come into contact (like the way superheroes always fight when they come into each others' presence for the first time). Only now, it wasn't happening. In at least one hive, different kinds of ants were meeting and engaging in diplomacy instead of outright warfare. Considering that humans are outnumbered about 20 million to 1 by the ants--according to a statistic that I just made up right now--that's potentially very, very bad news for the shaved apes who developed to the point where they can wear shoes and complain about the government.

The ants, of course, are even less capable of taking direction than the lions did in Roar. Everything that we see from them that impresses the viewer is the result of Ken Middleham and his staff taking hours upon hours of footage of ants doing stuff and then finding the sequences that work best to convince the audience that the ants are acting intelligently rather than simply on instinct. I cannot praise the insertion of this footage enough; there's some material there that goes beyond entertaining and becomes downright eerie. I could believe in an intelligent hive mind watching this movie, although since it's a low budget movie I'm believing in one that bitches about craft services and wants higher billing than the human actors.

Lesko clues us in to one super-crucial detail during his voiceover--Dr. Hubbs was secretive and also probably worried that every single person in the world would laugh at him if he said ants were forming a superhive that also had some form of government. So, naturally, he keeps his results to himself. But all that means is that nobody else working with him (like, say, a mathematician named James Lesko) is on the same page as the biologist, and will be working to catch up to him via fragments of ideas that they encounter more or less by accident.

Deep in an ant hill in Arizona, there's signs of intelligence (the ants have put designs on one of the walls, and have organized tiny crystals of some kind in a pattern of stacked circles); just by putting those things in the film while real ants walk past them Bass manages to instantly create an otherworldly atmosphere. There's no exposition to tell the audience what those things are, but they look like they couldn't belong in nature less than a fully-formed Roman temple.

In the center of the hive, the queen ant (played by a wasp) endlessly births a tide of eggs that are carted away and cared for by drones. A series of shots and reverse shots make it look like a servitor ant of some kind has come up to tell the queen something, but like all the other human characters in the film the audience can't understand Formic. After this sequence there's more footage of ants doing Ant Stuff as a voiceover from Dr. Hubbs points out to his grant committee that the local ant hives appear to be cooperating--to the point that spiders and other ant-eating organisms are nowhere to be found in the area. We see footage of an ant swarm overrunning, killing, and eating a spider hundreds of times the size of any individual ant and I almost feel sorry for the arachnid, except that it is a spider so I don't.

Dr. Hubbs tells the men with the purse strings that he wants to construct a research station out in this section of Arizona where he can monitor the strange ant activity and do science about it. He also wants a mathematician to work for him, specifically one with code-construction and code-breaking skills in his background. He's also asking for chemical weapons strong enough to murder the entire anthill if he has to, operating on the theory that the ants could be horrifically dangerous to humankind if they genuinely are intelligent. He's hoping to control the situation,'s a science fiction movie from the early Seventies. Odds are not good. It doesn't help that the anthill is out in the middle of goddamned nowhere in the Arizona desert, where heat shimmer and scrubland are the only features other than a couple ironic billboards for the Paradise City subdivision that was never constructed (so there are no pretty girls or green grass to be found).

Hubbs and Lesko arrive at the spot where the research station is going to be built (and a gimmick shot from the POV of an ant shows the viewer that the two scientists who want to monitor the new situation are being monitored themselves from more or less the second they wandered near the hive). There's a towering monument in the desert near Paradise City, and it's something neither man has ever seen before; a huge rectangle of hard-packed soil that looks for all the world like a Mega-City One tower block for ants. Dr. Hubbs tells his assistant that his knowledge of game theory and mathematics is going to be called into use while he takes pictures of the hive towers (and while another POV shot watches him watching the ants) and then it's time to get cracking. The first sign of oddball ant activity is that the crops growing on a nearby farm have giant circles of dead crops in them (which Lesko figures out on his own after walking around, and which is revealed to the viewer as the camera zooms back). Incidentally, the first crop circles reported in England were made in 1978; perhaps the Brits who created them caught a showing of this film on BBC2 and decided to pretend to be hyperintelligent ants to screw with their neighbors. I appreciate that because my hobbies are stupid, too.

That farm that the two men are checking out? It's got a family farming it, even with the weirdness going on with the ants (and with the ants apparently killing the lambs that are being raised for wool or meat). The head of the family plans to go Full Leiningen on the ants if they make a move against him; he has one ditch around his homestead filled with water and another one inside that perimeter full of kerosene. If the water moat doesn't keep the insects out he'll light the second one and hope that teaches 'em a lesson to back the hell off. If they make it past the second ditch his whole family's going to be up shit creek surrounded by pissed off ants, but the middle-aged white guy running the show on his family farm has one vote for how to handle things and his wife and granddaughter have a combined total of zero votes between them. So that's just how things are going to go.

Things go remarkably badly when Dr. Hubbs hands an evacuation order to the farmer; he says it's for the man's own protection to be gone when the experiment starts, and that might even be true. It's at least partly true that Hubbs doesn't want any extraneous complications when he starts trying to communicate with or destroy the ants, though, and ordering people to take off for a little while so he can science the shit out of the problem sounds pretty reasonable to me. Although "asking" might have gotten him better results than just handing over a letter with an evacuation order in it. At least the cover story they gave to the farmers involved developing a new pesticide, and telling people not to be near it when it gets used makes a great deal of sense.

After the scientists drive off (and Dr. Hubbs implies that it's possible that the farmers will never be allowed to return to their land if things go badly), we get a PHASE II title in the upper right corner of the screen. That phase entails a geodesic dome in the middle of the scrub desert with a bunch of scientific gear crammed into it; Dr. Hubbs and James Lesko live in there amongst the various pieces of equipment. The general idea is that Dr. Hubbs is going to study the ants and determine just what their new and weird behavior really entails while Lesko will work on deciphering the ants' language and determine if it's possible to talk to the hive on any level. If you like scenes of 70s science dudes flipping switches and adjusting dials there's a montage at this point that will be like manna from heaven for you. I'm grateful for the total lack of expository dialogue here; the scientists both know what they're doing and don't need to tell each other about it. And the audience doesn't need to be told the specifics of what the two men are doing--the generalities can be expressed as "trying to figure out what's up with the weird ant colony".

A time jump occurs (there's a counter on one of the computers that reads TIME ELAPSED 20950 MINUTES, which works out to fourteen and a half days after the experiment offically started). The grant committee or governmental organization that okayed Dr. Hubbs' plan is asking what's up with their lack of results so far. Apparently some bean counter at the state or federal level figured that making first contact with an alien intelligence of unprecedented abilities would take as long as binge-watching The Wire, Treme and Boardwalk Empire at the rate of one season per day and they want to shut things down now that it hasn't happened. Dr. Hubbs says it's likely that the ants are going to do something else soon, but there's no way to make them reveal their presence and capabilities on demand.

When it looks like the government is pulling the plug on the experiment rather than let it go Hubbs does something drastic. Those towers of dirt that hte ants put up? He destroys them with a grenade launcher (proving once and for all that science is amazing). As one can imagine, this provokes the ants into doing something. That "something" starts out as a bunch of Joe Meek sound effects on the monitoring microphones at the start, but the hive isn't content to mimic the RGM Sound for long. They attack the farm (floating across the water moat and the kerosene one on chips of wood; something that undoubtedly got helped along by a stagehand but still looks really ominous because without the ant wrangler's fingers in the shot it sure looks like the insects understand what they're doing). Lighting the flammable moat doesn't stop the bugs, who tear apart the concrete and wood in the farmhouse, collapsing it as the family (and Clete the previously unmentioned farmhand) drives away from the conflagration.

Back at the research station, Lesko is explaining the complicated steps it takes to determine if the ants are truly intelligent or not--he's monitoring one of the anthills, and seeing if the noises he's picking up on his mikes can be correlated with the things that are happening in the ant hill. His working hypothesis is that there's some kind of command being given by the queen of the hive (or perhaps a middle-management caste that's come into existence--the sergeants of the soldier ants). If there really are commands being given, he should be able to prove that a certain noise corresponds to a certain type of activity in the hive. All he's got for the last two weeks is a huge amount of data--possibly a haystack of noise, with a needle or two of signal buried deep into it. And given that ants communicate through scent and motion as well, he might only have a third of the data he'd need to put together an English-Formic phrasebook altogether (although his early results are extremely promising).

But while he's doing that the farmer's family is fleeing through the desert towards the research station (bailing out of the truck when the farmer's wife realizes they've got a bunch of tiny bitey hitchhikers), and the ants do something to the truck parked outside the dome that causes it to explode (and which knocks out the battery power to the research station until the backups come on). Dr. Hubbs retaliates to that probe by spraying one of the three color-coded insecticides that the station uses as a first line of defense (they have Red, Yellow and Blue flavors of poison and he starts with Yellow). It does a number on the ants, but the farmers wind up being soaked down with hundreds of gallons of poison as well. Lesko can tell that some of the ants that were attacking the dome are able to get away; Hubbs thinks that if they're capable of learning as well as communicating, they just learned something about what happens when the hive acts aggressively towards the research station.

The next morning the ground's covered with yellow crystals for dozens of yards around the research station--the poison that Hubbs used as his chemical warfare campaign against the ants. And also, inadvertently, against the farmers (the old man's granddaughter turns out to have survived by hiding in the cellar of an abandoned house but we aren't going to find this out just yet). Dr. Hubbs examines the wrecked truck and finds that the ants formed a chain of bodies to create a short circuit that ignited the gas tank, at least partly as a way to avoid looking at the dead human bodies outside the geodesic dome. But once Hubbs finds Clete the farmhands' body he opens its clenched fist and sees ants climbing out of holes in his palm; first of all, YAAAAAAAAAGH!; second of all, they seem to have figured out that they could hide from the toxic gunk raining down by burrowing into the man's body. Just as Hubbs is taking ants from the corpse to study, the farmer's granddaughter comes out into view from the cellar where she was hiding and promptly faints when she sees the two men in biohazard suits.

Back in the lab, Dr. Hubbs rhapsodizes at length about how ant society works out better than human societies, and compares the individual ants scrabbling around in their plastic home to cells in the body of a much larger organism. One of those cells, by the way, is a tan-colored ant with a green abdomen that's significantly larger than the regular black-carapaced drones it's hanging out with. Earlier in the film another ant with those characteristics was talking to the queen, so it appears by random chance that the scientists picked up a brain bug and took it back home with them.

Hubbs is planning to run the captive ants through a series of tests to see how they deal with lack of food, temperature extremes, isolation from the hive and other environmental pressures. He's also got a couple of praying mantises in a box and is planning to see how the ants respond to a predator in their midst (I am guessing that at least a couple of them respond by getting eaten). Lesko wants to call in a helicopter to get Kendra the surviving farmer out to safety; Dr. Hubbs is worried that the experiment will be cancelled if the money men find out he accidentally killed three people while flooding the area with pesticides. I am choosing to interpret his reticence in the best possible light; to wit, that the ants are good and pissed off right now and it will be necessary to respond to their next aggressive move quickly and intelligently. That, of course, will not be possible if there's nobody pushing the big blue or red "poison attack" buttons on the console in the station.

Tellingly, when Kendra is finally introduced to the scientists (and the audience), Lesko gives his name as "Jim" and tells their guest that the other man is "Dr. Hubbs". Hubbs says that he'll send a message for someone to come get Kendra the next day, and an unexpected factor arises when the girl decides to smash the glass maze / really big ant farm that the mantises and ants are being held in. Lesko hauls her out of the room before Dr. Hubbs walks out, seals the door to the lab, and floods the room with insecticide gas as a way to (hopefully) contain the escaped bugs. He doesn't escape without a bite, though; Lesko notices it before the biologist does.

What follows next is one of the justifiable famous sequences in the film; a living ant carries one of the dried yellow poison crystals back to its hive until it succumbs to the toxic morsel. Another ant takes the crystal into its mandibles and drags it down the tunnel until it, too, gives up its life. A third ant takes up its position in the relay, and so on and so on, until the poison fragment is in the queen's chamber. The queen samples a tiny dose of the poison and starts laying yellow eggs; when that generation of larvae matures, the yellow poison isn't going to work on them any more. Those scenes are genuinely fascinating, if unfortunately lethal for the "actors" that were hauling the poison around. I'm not particularly upset at the loss of a few ants in the making of this film (it's not like Cannibal Holocaust, where animal killings are used to suggest to the audience that the actors in the film are really in mortal danger). It's also just a few ants. If it was a colony of otters or dolphins getting murdered for a science fiction movie I'd be just as incensed as you would.

The scenes in the hive are intercut with Dr. Hubbs talking to the outside world and scratching at the rash on the back of his hand where the ant bit him (in a moment rich with dark humor, the government man suggests destroying a single one of the ant towers in an attempt to "get an interesting reaction" from the hive). Dr. Hubbs, visions of testimony in front of Congress likely dancing in his head, denies having met with any civilians living near the research station. That means he's not telling even the slightest bit of truth when he tells Lesko that the helicopter's coming real soon and that Kendra will be whisked away to safety. At this point, Lesko swallows that lie hook, line and sinker and shows off the visualization he's worked up on the station's computers--an endlessly shifting pattern of light that looks like curved lasers playing through fog. He doesn't know enough to interpret what the patterns mean yet, but they're not just random noise.

That night, the ants build a series of squat towers in a ring around the dome. Turns out that you can get a lot of construction done if you have hundreds of thousands of laborers following orders. The towers have a diamond-faced top that faces the research station, and that surface is covered with some kind of reflective substance. Which means that when the sun comes up, the research station is located in a massive heat sink. It also means that several of the factors Dr. Hubbs listed when he was talking about what he was going to do with the captured ants are now being inflicted on the research station (some of them because of the intelligent ants' activities and some of them because of his own efforts).

Kendra and Lesko talk when she wakes up; he tries to put the young woman at ease and tells her that she's going to be able to leave later that day. Before a breakfast made of the finest MRE-quality foods (the government didn't stock the lab with an eye towards comfort), Kendra asks Lesko what he does and he avoids the subject of studying the ants since he doesn't care to upset her any more than he has to. Dr. Hubbs summons him to look at the structures that the ants put together in the poisonous wasteland covered with the yellow toxins--literally overnight, the hive built the weapons that are being used against the researchers, and in a section of territory that should have killed every ant that set foot in it (any of its six feet). Whatever intelligence is manipulating the anthill has just revealed capabilities far beyond anything that humankind would be able to use in response.

Which the scientists find out as the temperature continues to climb in their lab. Lesko's less than thrilled about getting killed by ants when he thought he was just getting a working vacation with plenty of sunlight and fresh air; it also comes out that each scientist noticed the crop circle in the farmer's field but didn't tell the other because Lesko didn't think Dr. Hubbs was smart enough to see what was right in front of him and the biologist thought his colleague would panic and quit if he saw the ants were demonstrating some kind of intelligence. Hubbs makes a pitch for trying to educate the anthill about what it can and cannot do when faced with the humans' efforts to strike back at them--which the viewer realizes is a fool's errand, because the insects are already able to do more to affect the three humans in the geodesic dome than they people will be able to do in response.

Oh, and Lesko figures out that Dr. Hubbs never called for that helicopter, so he says he's going to do it. He's also resigning as soon as the flight out of Dodge gets there because he's been studying the ants' abilities since he got to the station and he does not like the odds that his boss has decided to play against without telling him. The point becomes moot when a group of ants burn out the radio by clustering over a crucial section of circuit board until it overheats and is destroyed. Dr. Hubbs thinks that's just another challenge to face and that he'll just have better war stories to talk about when he wins (and that bite on his hand has swollen up to the point where it's got to be painful and distracting, but he doesn't seem to have noticed it at all).

Hubbs plans a "counter-action" for Lesko to program and starts screwing with the air conditioner, because the computer systems are going to shut down when room temperature is 90 degrees or higher. Hopefully he'll be able to buy some time before everything falls apart. Lesko's response to the solar mirrors is to focus sound waves at them and pulverize the towers by matching their natural resonance (think of the Tacoma Narrows bridge as a rough comparison). Kendra flees from the noise and covers her ears while glass beakers break in the lab and some of the mirror towers start to crumble outside (filmed to look like shattering buildings rather than the two-foot-tall structures made of dirt that they are, which puts the viewer more in the perspective of the ants than it does the scientists). At the same time all that's going on, an escaped praying mantis tracks down an ant in the air conditioner module and eats it; one of the thinking-caste ants then pulls the mantis down into the guts of the machinery and the electrical arcs that kill the mantis also blows out the A/C. Lesko's efforts to destroy the towers are stopped prematurely and the equipment all shuts down with the exception of a single blinking red warning light. As if that wasn't enough on the humans' plate right now, Dr. Hubbs starts to feel feverish and achy from the single ant bite on his hand that he suffered some time back.

A pan over one of the destroyed mirror towers shows dozens or even hundreds of dead and dying ants, with somber music playing on the score as the sun goes down. The temperature in the dome had reached 115 degrees; even with the sun going down it's still way too warm to work in the research station (and Lesko wants to know how the ants figured out that the A/C was the one machine that could shut down everything else in the facility if it was taken out). Like all great science fiction or horror stories, this one contains moments of the impossible that is happening in front of the protagonists' faces. Meanwhile, unobserved by the human characters, worker ants bring the bodies of the casualties from the mirror towers back to a hive chamber, laying them out in orderly rows in some kind of ceremony. So at this point the viewer has seen the hyperintelligent ants plan out a murder (of the mantis), sacrifice their lives to produce an immunity to the yellow toxin, communicate with each other, and now grieve. Every new activity makes them seem more intelligent, and with a distinct personality. If each dead ant was truly just one cell in a larger organism, as Dr. Hubbs theorized earlier, there would be no need for the hive to try and recover their bodies. And if they were going to just be eaten by the hive as a no-fuss source of nutrients, there would be no need to arrange their bodies in orderly rows.

Over the course of the night, the temperature finally falls in the dome to the point where the computer equipment starts up again. Lesko thinks that the ants are letting the two scientists use their giant external brains for some unguessable reason; Dr. Hubbs doesn't agree, at least partially because he doesn't want to think about what it means for the ants to have taken control of the research station so completely, and in just a day. The mathematician tries to send a message to the hive; it's the instructions for the ants to move in a pattern that traces out a diamond shape. Lesko believes that a simple mathematical sequence like the one he sent will reveal to the hive (and whatever's in it making the ants as smart as they are) that there are intelligent beings in the research station and not just hostile creatures lashing out blindly at the colony.

That night one of the brain-caste ants crawls over Kendra's sleeping body (in a series of closeups, one of which threatens the PG rating of the film). She wakes to see it in front of her and tells it to leave her alone (which is at least an attempt to communicate--she could have just crushed it with a slap). Meanwhile, Dr. Hubbs is raving and feverish, sweating on a cot and barely realizing when someone else is near him. In a moment of semi-clarity he spots one of the thinking ants and tosses thousands of dollars' worth of equipment off the storage shelves while looking for a single ant that manages to escape him repeatedly until he smashes it (and cuts the crap out of his palm on some broken glass). The shots here that show the doctor's fingers in extreme closeup as he searches for the ant show just what kind of scale the two characters are working in but it's the green-bellied ant escaping a half a dozen times that makes the sequence really work. I'd believe it if someone told me the filmmakers trained an ant to do stunts.

After the doctor's freakout, night falls again (and we get a PHASE III caption; jeeze, considering how much more in control the ants have been all along, I half expect Phase IV to be 200,000 ants in a trench coat going door to door asking people for sugar cubes). Shots of nature lead to another look at the inside of the dome, with nothing working, Dr. Hubbs smoking and scratching at himself in semi-delirium and Lesko wondering why the ants haven't killed them yet. Unfortunately, none of his experience with mathematics give the scientist any insight as to what's going on. Quietly raving, Hubbs theorizes that killing the queen would lead to the hive falling apart; he thinks that whatever is organizing the ants to act in intelligent concert is centered on the queen. And he's pretty sure that he could find her in the hive and kill her if he really tried. The next time there's a burst of activity in the hive, he wants Lesko to try and track it with his computers so that the biologist can kill the queen (either with a massive burst of poison or just by stomping on her, I guess).

Even as Hubbs comes up with the plan, a closed-circuit camera shows a rodent out in the desert surrounding the station getting overrun by an ant swarm and reduced to fur and skeleton in a matter of (time-lapse sped up footage) seconds. Hubbs says they've got the biohazard suits to protect themselves and Lesko points out that there's two suits and three people in the dome. If the ants decide to go from zero to Marabunta on them, at least one person is going to die. The computer rattles off a picture sent to it by the hive; it's the diamond that Lesko sent earlier, but with a large circle in the center and a tiny dot inside the circle. Lesko's got no idea what that means, but it is unquestionably a message sent back to them with intent. Also, while I'm thinking about it, why didn't they try destroying more of the mirror towers in the night? It'd slow down the heating process even if they didn't get all of them, and only the air conditioner was destroyed by the ant / mantis sabotage as far as I can tell. I'm not certain who two extremely intelligent people would abandon the only plan that worked even partially to help them out. But so far they have.

Lesko realizes that the ants are testing him and Dr. Hubbs with their communications and actions, and starts to worry that he's going to fail it if he doesn't understand what the circle and dot really represent. He theorizes that the ants want to try and communicate with someone if the large circle represents the dome and the dot is a symbol for a person. But that's only one dot and there are three people in the research station; an agonizing and horrible death awaits whoever sets foot outside the dome if Lesko's wrong. And even if he's right, if the one person who goes out there isn't the one that the hive wishes to talk to. Kendra interprets that possibility as the hive wanting to kill the person that hurt it; she also thinks it might be her because of the shot she took at the ants in the glass anthill rather than thinking of the two scientists who spray poison all over Hell's creation a few days ago. She goes outside, barefoot, probably thinking that if she sacrifices herself the two researchers will be allowed to live. Singing a hymn, she makes her way towards the ants that scurry out of the earth and cries out when they swarm over her feet.

Kendra's absence is completely missed by the two scientists as they put together their plan to kill the queen. Dr. Hubbs is so racked up that he can't even pull his boots on, so the "wipe out the colony" plan gets put on hold while Lesko tries to write a new message to the colony. He thinks the dot inside that circle represented Dr. Hubbs (which it might, or it might not--perhaps the ants cannot tell the different between the humans). His plan to try and talk to the hive ends abruptly when he hears the door bang shut; Hubbs is outside, raving about which hill has the queen in it and he sets off toward it, only the fall into a ten foot deep pit trap dug by the patient labor of an inconceivable number of worker ants. They swarm over him by the thousands as Lesko watches helplessly from the top of the pit.

The next shot is of a solitary man in a biohazard suit spraying blue poison from a handheld fogger, walking towards that hill and musing that there just wasn't enough time for the human scientists to figure out a way to genuinely communicate with the ants. And given the colony's abilities as demonstrated against the research station and its stockpile of poisons as well as its rate of expansion over a short amount of time, if he doesn't get to the main hill and wipe out the queen now the world of man will inevitably be destroyed by trillions of intelligent ants. Dragging the tank of insecticide to the hole in the desert where the hive lies, Lesko charges down into the unknown and finds himself in an empty chamber sized for him to stand up in rather than one built to an ant's scale. Inside it, partially buried in sand, is Kendra (who is not nearly as dead as the film led the viewer to believe). The intelligence wanted to turn Lesko and Kendra into parts of its own unguessable schemes and brought them to that place; as the film ends and the sun rises on one of the last days of humanity's dominion over Earth. One assumes that whatever the intelligence did to the two humans was Phase IV of its master plan.

Man alive, that's a fascinating movie. It's also a slow one, where the audience has to pay a great deal of attention (and where there are only six human characters and one voice over the radio). And the film unfolds at a measured pace, with no definite answers to be found in its ending. Plus some people probably got a case of the raging fantods from all the massive closeups of the ants (there's a reason the poster has one bursting out of a hand, even though that doesn't quite happen the way the advertisement implies). If you can relax a bit and remember that not everything's going to get wrapped up in a tidy little bow at the end of the film, though, this is a movie that rewards every scrap of attention that you're willing to give it.


  1. Have you read the novelization? I only skimmed it, but it seems like there's a lot that didn't really come across on the screen. Like I gather that the end is supposed to be not the ants conquering the earth, but all of the earth's life uniting into one big gestalt organism, which is, far as I could tell, only alluded to by one line in the film right at the beginning.

  2. I have not, but I'll keep my eyes peeled for it (I go to library book sales as a hobby and sooner or later I'm sure I'll stumble upon it). That sounds a bit more transcendent than the movie's ending, and closer to the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY kind of ending than the Bummer Seventies Ending that we got.

  3. "In the center of the hive, the queen ant (played by a wasp)..."

    There's a joke to be made here about good Hollywood roles being wasp-washed, but I'm too lazy to develop it.