Part man, part ant… wait hang on a second, let’s back up and try that again. This is one of those sinister 1970s science fiction movies, the kind that really gets under your skin. Quite literally in some sequences! It’s sort of like a demented clash between Look Around You and The Andromeda Strain. There’s yet another isolated laboratory setting, and the focus on methodically testing solutions to a problem in particular remind me of Michael Crichton’s space microbe story. There’s a certain cold, clinical approach to it all (despite the desert outside) and the lack of shots showing any other locations beyond a lone farmhouse creates a lot of tension. This is a story full of striking images, eerie moments and a general sense of creeping dread. But they’re just ants, what can you do outside of silly B-movie monster moments?
The answer of course is to be creative, and to do it as well as possible. After a vague introduction about cosmic events changing life on Earth in some way, the insect kingdom goes through a dramatic change. There are some psychedelic graphics showing strange phenomena in outer space, and soon after ants of all different species begin communicating instead of being solitary. Their natural predators also start to be wiped out. While there is some exposition a lot of this is done without narration, and we’re left to work out what the bugs are up to visually. They go through tunnels and have little meetings in the dark, it’s kind of great. This is all done without models or puppets; these are real insects, painstakingly photographed in high detail. The ant wranglers – if there is such a thing – must have had a difficult time, using special lenses and placing the bugs into small sets. The result is fascinating to watch as they slowly and surely draw their plans against us.
The sequence showing their action against human poison is particularly engrossing. After a chemical spray is left on the ground to kill off any intruders, a series of ants begins to come above ground to investigate, apparently making a chain link of suicides to carry a sample of the pesticide all the way back to the hive leaders. It’s bizarre just describing this but it’s like a documentary without voice overs, you’re just left to figure out what they’re thinking.
I guess I have to talk about the human element eventually of course. Above ground in a sealed room they attempt several different approaches to the problem. Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) is the calculating scientist, concerned with finding ways to fight back. Of course he’s got an English accent to get across his personality as the less empathic member of the team. His companion James (Michael Murphy) is the more human one. As a specialist in mathematics, signals and methods of communication, he’s more invested in trying to use sound waves to intercept and relay messages from the colony.
And boy, what an ant hill it is. The creepy monolithic structures which have begun appearing in the desert are built with an almost alien design and a great deal of geometric precision. They make for one of the most memorable images in the story. Whatever change in habits they’ve gone through, the building processes of the once simple Formicidae family have been vastly refined. The allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey do not go unnoticed; this time intelligence has been bestowed on something other than primates. These structures and the desert heat itself are used against the humans; as new tests are devised inside the sealed experiments dome the insects being to prove that it’s less than secure.
Most of the story is built up through these kind of scenes, simple developments in methods of attack and defence. As the lab team tries to come up with new ideas, the hive mind works just as fast to cripple their efforts. Soon enough things start to come undone and the co-operation between the two human brains slowly breaks down, as do the computer servers they are depending on. The contrast between taking violent action and trying to talk with an enemy which uses another language is of course a well worn idea, but the performances are solid and the team’s deteriorating physical and mental condition provides plenty of drama.
During all this the only survivor from the wasteland outside is Kendra (Lynne Frederick) a young girl who seems a little like a fifth wheel, but there are some moments where she gets to do something other than act hysterically later on. The homestead invasion scenes and the subsequent chemical spraying are pretty engrossing. Despite the absurd nature of swarms of ants going after people and large farm animals it manages to be pretty creepy, and the aftermath is also rather sinister, thanks in part to Dr. Hubbs’ detached behaviour.
Interestingly, this is the one feature film directed by artist and designer Saul Bass, who of course made numerous title sequences and posters for classic movies, but never got behind the camera for another full length release. It seems like shame, but perhaps it wasn’t his real passion. The film has a strong claustrophobic atmosphere and a few effective set pieces, it looks great and has lots of interesting sets and models depicting the innards of the lab and the ant colony from the perspective of the invaders. The ending doesn’t entirely work and is a little out there, it feels rushed and too well… alien. They should have used the intended finale, a longer climax showing a global outcome would make it more effective. But as tense sci-fi stories go it’s weird and it’s interesting, what else can you ask for.