Phase IV And Hellstrom’s Hive: Am I Bugging You?

You can’t possibly hate ants as much as I do. One time I remember my mother-in-law ordered enough mulch to cover her entire property on the hottest day of the summer, and she got me to agree to spread it for her (solo). Then she took off with my wife and kids to go shopping. I had plucked a clump of weeds and was still holding it as I said goodbye while they were driving away, and my arm lit up in pain like it was in flames. Looking down in a panic, my entire arm was swarming with black, pissed off ants. Not gonna lie, it hurt a little bit.

Anyway, there’s an excellent creepy and innovative movie from the 70’s you need to see, should this have escaped your attention till now. It’s called Phase IV. If you like weird ambience in your science fiction, a creepy foreboding, and a threat that’s a little different from your typical madman, alien, or undead beastie, this one’s for you. Here, we have a temporary research facility set up in the Arizona scrublands to investigate some intelligent ants. The guy in charge is a bit unstable, and that escalates quickly. The other guy is our everyman, who wants to apply game theory to try and communicate with the buggies. A girl joins the cast when her farm is toasted in the escalation.

So maybe I do hate ants, but this movie utterly fascinates me.

The bugs build towers, observing the observers. That’s how things really get started here. And that is just a bizarrely entrancing idea. You’ll get your fill of some memorable scenes: a nightmarish swollen arm, reflective towers slowly heating the research dome, and some spooky visual communication from the ants (a circle with a dot inside…what could THAT mean?). In fact, that visual communication was the only thing from the entire movie that I recalled from when I was a kid and it came on the television one Sunday afternoon. It’s that creepy.

You’re unlikely to guess the ending. I didn’t. It makes some sense after you think about it. I won’t spoil that, but you should absolutely give this movie a try should your personal aesthetic be able to cope with a slower pace and less gruesome violence.

What made me think of this flick is I recently finished reading Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert for the second time. You know Frank Herbert from the excellent Dune series. He wrote more than that though. People really should dig a little deeper into that dude. He was incredible. So let’s talk about Hellstrom’s Hive.

Herbert unleashed this odd little masterpiece in 1973 in Galaxy magazine under the title, “Project 40”. Here’s how it begins:

Words of the brood mother, Trova Hellstrom. I welcome the day when I will go into the vats and become one with all our people. (Dated October 26, 1896)

One thing I love about the Dune novels is the chapter-opening quotes from Paul or whoever that side-swipe you with these fascinating insights or inspiring ideas but are really just infusing flavor and context. I really look forward to those. Hellstrom’s Hive offers quite a bit of this, much of it from something called ‘The Hive Manual’ and also from the originator of this new organizing principle for social order, Trova…grandmother to Nils Hellstrom who currently runs the show.

Here’s part of the wikipedia description so you get the gist of what’s happening here:

Dr. Nils Hellstrom, an entomologist, is a successful film maker and influential scientific advisor with strong political ties. Living and working with a small staff on a farm in rural Oregon, he attracts the attention of an unnamed government organisation when documents are discovered that hint of cult-like activities and a secret weapon project.

It is revealed that the farm is situated above a vast system of tunnels and caves, hosting a hive-like subterranean society of nearly 50,000 specialized workers. Hellstrom, thanks to advanced bioengineering, has been the appointed hive leader for more than 100 years. He is completely convinced of the superiority of the hive and its abandonment of conventional morals and ethics: sexuality or violence, indeed, any individual action, is rated strictly whether it strengthens or weakens the hive as a whole.

You’re catching this, right? Fifty thousand people are living like ants underground, many of them mute and neutered, being bred for specialist skills like engineering or subterfuge or building. They operate in many ways on countless pheremones and are incredibly sensitive to mood and emotions. If the hive has a disruptive element in it, the disruption swells. And they can’t afford too much disruption, because the hive feels pressure already to swarm. I mean…is it not just fun and naughty and weird to even just discuss all this? Everybody’s naked and smelling each other. They keep stumps of people just for reproduction. They recycle bodies to lump in with the food supply. It’s really well thought-out and internally consistent.

Herbert was inspired by a super strange quasi-documentary about insects and survival called The Hellstrom Chronicle. I watched that one once, on Youtube or something. It amazes me what people will produce, and what I will sometimes watch. You probably shouldn’t spend your time on that one. Maybe just skip to the book Herbert wrote after watching it. He told Tim O’Reilly in an interview that his notion with this novel, in thinking about the worst type of civilization imaginable, that it would be a peculiar type of tension to twist things around and make outside civilization the villain. So here, we have the secret group named only The Agency and their shenanigans trying to spy on and ultimately invade Hellstrom’s hive.

So anyway, that’s what I wanted to toss your way today…a buggy grouping of interesting worthies to enlighten and amuse you. If you wind up partaking in either (or if you fondly recall one of them), let me know. I feel like my taste in entertainment sometimes drifts a bit into the esoteric. Just me?

Till next time, guys. Dreams are engines.

Be fuel.

What Is The Deal With Filming Dune?


I think of Frank Herbert’s, ‘Dune’ as the best science fiction novel ever written, and one of the finest pieces of fiction ever published. It’s that good; and so are the sequel, ‘Dune Messiah’ and to a lesser extent, the third book, ‘Children Of Dune’. Everything tapers off after that, so I’m not really talking about those now. I have many reasons for why I dig these so much:

  1. There’s a big, overarching religious context with the Bene Gesserit witches and the manufacturing of a messiah. I love the big, humming metaphysical overtones.
  2. Intrigue all over the place – everyone’s spying or betraying everyone else.
  3. Power plays and an uprising. Maybe it veers dangerously close to the white savior-style storyline where an outsider guy does native stuff better than natives; but there are great explanations for why. Loads better than the steaming turd that was, ‘Avatar’
  4. Freaking giant sandworms tearing up the desert and eating people.
  5. I’ll count the worms twice because they summon, hook and ride them!
  6. Spice-driven superpowers like telling the future, folding space, and whatnot
  7. Unlike almost anything this high-concept, I mean almost anything that tries to be this ambitious, there is nothing outright stupid and poorly thought-out. Even the idea of the giant worms living where there’s nothing big for them to eat was incredibly well structured with an ecology. Nothing stupid. All well-cooked. Guy was a genius.

With the glowing blue eyes on the Fremen, the worms, the battles, the technology, the intrigue, palaces, beautiful women, honor combat, exotic desert scenes, and massive space ships, the visuals and action are perfect for a grand, high budget, Hollywood treatment. So what keeps happening?

There was a piece of junk made with Sting and Kyle MacLachlan in 1984, which though many people still dig it, honestly doesn’t deserve their praise. Probably it’s nostalgia. I mean, I still like watching, ‘Jason Of Star Command’ and ‘Logan’s Run’; but that doesn’t mean they were good.


This was after Alejandro Jodorowsky’s disastrous attempt at making a 12-hr LSD hallucination with Salvador Dali based on, ‘Dune’. He even started treating his son like a messiah in the making because he was so into it. No, seriously, you need to watch the documentary on this or at least the trailer. Alejandro is a genius, yes; but he’s a genius to be consulted by people not high on peyote and who can stick to a budget, not a genius you should hand anything over to.


So now I’m rewatching the almost-mess the SciFi channel (not SyFy back then) put together back in 2000 as a mini-series. I love the book so much, this is entirely watchable for me. I can ignore the ridiculous Peter Pan costume they put Stilgar in and the silly sailboat sails they have hanging off people’s backs, even the little diapers they make Paul wear in his knife fight. I can ignore the ludicrous mwa-ha-ha maniac laugh the Baron makes when he’s floating around in his gay bondage outfit. But my point is this – why should I have to?

I know, I know. Disney tried making an old-time classic (John Carter of Mars) into a high budget non-Star Wars movie and it sank like a rock and was a Hollywood punchline and career-killer for years. That probably means we’re out of luck for a long time on this.


If modern audiences just want a little humor, plenty of action and spectacle, and to have fun with an interesting story, as Marvel’s successes would indicate, here’s my proposal; and if you’re a purist who loves, ‘Dune’ like I do, then don’t freak out:

  1. Make Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck into humorous Indiana Jones-style tough guys
  2. Put an interesting twist on the Baron to make him more likeable, the way Loki was handled in the Avengers
  3. Ground everything by de-emphasizing off-planet and spaceship stuff, focusing on Paul and Jessica’s trying to win over the Fremen
  4. Cool battle scenes, yes; but not with CGI and keep them fun by retaining occasional humor, the way the dwarf and elf banter in, ‘Fellowship Of The Ring’, for example.

Somebody write this and send it off to Hollywood. I’d totally watch it.