Part man, part ant… sorry I’m getting ahead of myself. This isn’t a tongue in cheek Joe Dante feature, but one of those sinister 1970s science fiction movies. The kind that gets under your skin. Quite literally in some sequences! It’s like a demented clash between Look Around You and The Andromeda Strain. There’s yet another isolated laboratory, and another team of highly strung scientists. Their focus on methodically lab testing in particular is reminiscent of Michael Crichton’s microbe movie. There’s a cold, clinical approach to it all despite the searing heat desert outside. The location in general creates a lot of tension. There’s a distinct lack of shots showing outside locations beyond a lone farmhouse. It’s a story full of striking images and creeping dread. But they’re just ants, what can they offer outside of silly spectacle and B-movie monster moments?
The answer of course is to be creative, and to do it as well as possible. After an introduction about cosmic events changing life on Earth in some vague 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 with each other. Then their natural predators start to be wiped out. While there is some exposition a lot of this is done without narration at all, 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 them into small sets. The result is fascinating to watch as they slowly and surely draw their plans against us. A 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 come to investigate. Apparently making a chain link of suicides they carry a sample of the pesticide all the way back to the hive leaders. It’s bizarre to describe but it’s like a documentary without the voice over.
There’s also a human element that I have to talk about eventually of course. Above ground in a sealed room they concoct several different solutions to the problem. Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) is the calculating scientist, concerned with finding ways to fight back. He’s got an English accent of course, to get across his personality as the least 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’re certainly one of the most memorable images in the story. Thanks to whatever mental changes 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, but this time intelligence has been bestowed on something other than primates. Soon these structures and the desert climate itself are used against the humans.
As this goes on above ground new tests are devised inside the sealed experiments dome, but the insects begin to prove that it’s less than secure. Most of the story is built up through these kind of scenes, simple developments in their means of attack and defence. As the central duo 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 pair’s deteriorating physical and mental condition provides plenty of drama.
During this battle of wills the only survivor from the wasteland outside is Kendra (Lynne Frederick) a young girl who seems a like a bit of a fifth wheel. But later on there are some moments where she gets to do something other than act hysterically. The homestead invasion scenes and the subsequent chemical spraying are all pretty engrossing, and despite the absurd nature of swarms of ants going after both people and large farm animals it manages to be pretty creepy. The aftermath is also rather sinister, thanks in part to Dr. Hubbs’ detached behaviour. Interestingly, this is the one feature film directed by graphic designer Saul Bass, who of course made numerous title sequences and posters for classic movies.
After this the artist never got behind the camera for another full length release. Which seems like shame looking at this turned out, but perhaps it wasn’t his real passion. The resulting 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 inhabitants and 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, with a longer climax showing a global outcome. It would make the conclusion all that much more effective. But as tense sci-fi stories go it’s weird and it’s interesting, what else can you ask for?