The Swarm (1978)

Warner Bros., 155 min. (extended version)/116 min. (theatrical), Dir. Irwin Allen

The first thing you’ll notice in the byline above is that there is an extended version and theatrical release. I did not know this when I queued it up on Netflix, so I watched the bloated 155 min. extended version which included a subplot involving a romantic contest between two middle aged men for a retirement age elementary school principle. Yikes, nothing makes like good watchin’ more than two middle aged dudes wooing a southern belle, if you’re into Evening Shade that is. I, however, wanted angry mutant bees, some great one-liners, and super-ridiculous pseudoscience.

The film opens with a special forces team landing on a nuclear missile base in Texas. Quizzically, the special forces team is operating on the assumption that a commie biological weapon strike killed the staff, yet you can see exposed skin between the sleeves of their “bio-hazard suits” (painter’s jumpsuits) and black leather driving gloves. Also interesting, before they even know that the threat is bees, they have flame throwers. It will all come together by the end of the review, my friends.

It turns out that a swarm of killer bees stung most everyone in the base to death, and Michael Caine, an entomologist and the foremost bee expert in the world, happens to be out by that desert wasteland when this goes down. The President places him in charge of the military forces with one mission: kill the bees. Oh, and the base is right next to a town who’s main industry is growing flowers. And it’s blooming season.

Now I’m not saying I could write or direct a motion picture, but it must be hard to make both Michael Caine and Peter Fonda look like the two worst actors in the world. Caine essentially has three gears in the film:

  • Crazy bee guy: “The war we’ve been fearing is finally here,” referring to a war between Africanized bees and humans, something still that keeps me up at night
  • Angry at the U.S. Army guy: “LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING GENERAL!!!” If you watch for nothing else, watch for the countless screaming arguments between Caine and Illinois’ own, Richard Wildmark
  • The guy who doles out conciliatory lines like “there was nothing we could do,” something he’ll get ample opportunity to say

Much like a lot of these bloated seventies action films, the plan is to get the smart, middle-aged white men into a control room to hash this thing out over black coffee and cigarettes. This film is even worse, as the women are pretty much window dressing. The one female lead who does something is billed as Helena (Katherine Ross) in the credits, despite the fact that she is an Air Force lieutenant and a doctor. She also saves a bunch of men from bees by dragging them into a bunker and escapes by crawling through an air conditioning vent, which is not shown as the film begins in medias rez. She doesn’t even get a “way to go” for that one. I’m pretty sure a man would have gotten a medal, or maybe just a pat on the back, or something. But she’s just a woman, a woman who gets replaced as chief doctor when a crisis hits and basically becomes Peter Fonda’s lab assistant / ward nurse. She does provide someone to protect from danger and flirt with later on in the film, though.

This movie is based off a novel by the late Sci-Fi writer Arthur Herzog. I couldn’t help but think about The Andromeda Strain when I watched this film as they share the same basic premise: both films present a foreign threat that has no foreseeable solution; both films involve gathering the best scientists in the world and sequestering them in a secret military installation to develop a solution. Whereas Andromeda takes the nerdy intellectual route, The Swarm eventually turns into another film about communists invading America, but with bees instead of a Soviet-Cuban alliance. The bees are constantly treated like an invading army and personified, allegedly possessing strategies and tactics designed to beat the military. As they make their way toward Huston (and there is no reason at all given as to why they’re are going there) the Army officers keep referring to them as “The Africans.” Don’t even ask me why that is. I guess you can’t refer to them as the bees, seeing as you might confuse them with the Eurasian or Australian bee armies.

Let’s see, so far we’ve had mutant bees and some great one-liners delivered in full screaming fury by Michael Caine, now all we need is some really bad science. How’s this: the bees sting some people in a nuclear power plant and, as a result, the plant explodes. Check – and – mate.

**Spoiler Alert**All the 40+ minutes of character development for the townspeople is pretty much wasted as they die in a train accident halfway through the film while trying to evacuate. There are survivors, but I guess at 155 lean minutes, the director felt it would be better not to include a 15 second scene telling us if any of them were the supporting characters from earlier.

The bees eventually begin “the occupation of Huston” and the Army does the only logical thing: start burning the city down with, you guessed it, flame throwers!! I take you now to their base of operations downtown, 11 p.m., a high rise building with floor to ceiling windows:

“Hey Private Smith, you really shouldn’t be playing catch with that brick inside our glass fortress becaus–oh shit!! Anyone have insecticide…oh yeah, we tried that 72 minutes earlier in the film and it didn’t work. Welp, I had a good run, lots of fun tim–and now I’m getting stung to death…”

Stupidly enough, the bees get in through the elevator, sting some dude, and as he’s dying he breaks the window. Thanks, man. Way to die in the most selfish way possible.

In a brilliant piece of writing, Caine and Ross go from fleeing the bees that are loose in the building, bees so deadly that they can drop a full grown man with one sting mind you, and in the very next shot they are in a jeep, driving in an airfield, in the daytime. I’ve only seen one other movie that so blatantly disregards a viewers intelligence1 and just spreads some frosting over the gaping hole in the cake.

The brilliant plan to kill the bees: spill a bunch of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, lure the bees there with their mating sound, then light it on fire.

4/10: If bees invade, at least we’ve got one part of the solution taken care of already

1That film was The Core (2003). For some BS reason a team of scientists needs to make it to the core of our planet, and most of the crew dies along the way from numerous, extremely boring geological dangers. After the mission is accomplished (no spoiler alert because you won’t want to see this film at all), the two remaining terranauts (I love that word) go from the core of our planet to the ocean floor with a caption that reads “three days later.” Great ending. I just wish the whole film would have been the title screen, then a screen that says “a month and a half later,” and then the credits.

Note: I was reading some Shakespeare related stuff, but I plan on watching some movies this weekend and even reviewing some new releases next week