Towards the beginning of Phase IV, the 1974 ecological sci-fi/horror film directed by designer Saul Bass (his one and only), four ants gather in a tunnel under the Arizona desert. Not an unusual event in and of itself unless you consider the context in which just prior to this, a cosmic event takes place after which colonies in this area develop an enhanced intelligence that compel them to take over the world.
In this particular scene, the four ants each have a different symbol attached to their head, located between their antena and directly placed on the piece exoskeleton covering their frontal lobe.
These mysterious symbols are never explained further, nor do they appear again. They seem to indicate tribal symbols, which suggest that this meeting is by elders or representatives from different colonies, forming some sort of treaty, coming together for the common cause of subsuming the human race into their own.
It’s a design feature that stands out in what is otherwise an incredibly naturalistic take on the genre. Could there have been further explanation intended at some point? With Saul Bass long since passed, we may never know – but it is intreguing to consider what was obviously a seriously considered element of the films production. Not only were these symbols concieved and designed with purpose, they were applied to real ants – which would have been challenging in itself.
Various shapes and symbols make further appearances in the film. In the heavens, in crop circles, at the entrances to nests, and in compound eyes. The film provides hypnotic insight into ant thinking and behaviour through geometry. Eric Davis has written about the use of design and geometry in the film:
Architecture and design is a key vector. The scientists announce their future consciousness with the geodesic dome that trumps the dilapidated desert houses they first find in the Zone. The ants show their intelligence in part by building vaguely ominous and hieratic pillars and creating simple geometric crop circles in the grass (way ahead of the curve on this one). Phase IV was the only film directed by Saul Bass, a legend of title sequences, and his attention to design runs throughout the film, which communicates its posthuman anxieties through image as much as narrative.Erik Davis
While it does seem like a uniuqely human thing to do, it’s not improbable that ants with an evolved intelligence such as that depicted in Phase IV would make little logos to identify and organise themselves in the creation of their new world.