Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Swarm (1978) dir. Irwin Allen

Logline: African killer bees attack a small town and then the world, declaring all-out insect war on the human race. Assorted big name actors hem and haw over a course of action. People hallucinate giant bees hovering over their beds.

Animal of Choice: A swarm of African (or Brazilian) killer bees that have migrated to the United States.

Thinking Ecologically: Ecological concerns are present, but also conveniently brushed over whenever the plot dictates. For instance, Michael Caine's character must convince the military not to airdrop liquid poison on the bees, as it will kill all normal honey bees as well, and hence kill crops (due to a lack of fertilization) and then humans (due to a lack of crops). Makes sense, but then Caine resolves to drop poison in pellet form on the bees (which doesn't work). How exactly does he know that other creatures won't gobble up the pellets by mistake? Another moment when the film neglects the ecological consequences of an event if when the bees-- somehow-- blow up a nuclear power plant. We're told the number of people who died in the blast, but we're not told (nor do any of the characters appear concerned) about the lingering environmental effects of having a goddamn nuclear power plant blow up. The remaining military-affiliated survivors ultimately kill the bees by pouring oil on the ocean and lighting it (and the bees resting on its surface) on fire. Success!

Thinking About Animals: For the most part, the African killer bees exist as a "moving black mass," deliberately attacking all in its path. (Its first appearance, kamikaze buzzing its way into the cockpit windows and the engines of two helicopters, reminds me of a very similar scene from the Japanese film Genocide (1968), which is as a bit like The Swarm on the whole except that it was made a decade earlier and isn't terrible). But calling them a migrating "black mass"-- one that has infiltrated the United States, patiently waiting to rebel against humankind (particularly small town America) while reproducing and shifting the demographics of the dueling populations-- takes on an off-putting connotation when Richard Widmark's character, General Slater, repeatedly growls and calls them "the Africans," like when he exclaims, "No more Africans!" Richard Chamberlin's character attempts to explain that the bees should actually be called "Brazilian bees," considering their genetic heritage stems from the crossbreeding of African and Western honey bees in that country, but this factoid doesn't deter anyone from pondering how to kill all them "Africans." I don't know if there's much to be made from this observation. Then again, in a cast as large as this one I was only able to spot a few black actors, all of whom were background extras. But then, the bees also reenforce their hives with chewed up plastic cups, so if they exist in the film as some sort of nefarious metaphor, then it's a pretty weird one. Yes, there is so little of interest transpiring in the film that I'm reduced to imagining it as a racist fever dream.

Evaluation in Brief: Producer and director Irwin Allen, known for his work spearheading big-budget big-star disaster films of the 1970s like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), decided to capitalize on the Animal Terror genre by combining it with the slackening genre that he helped create. The result, 1978's The Swarm, is a perfect storm of boredom. A box office flop upon its initial theatrical release, one can only really find the film these days in its extended cut, which clocks in at an excruciating, nearly unfathomable 156 minutes. One feels every second of the endless sequences of its near-geriatric stars (Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Cameron Mitchell) standing around bickering in the same cheap sets and the belabored tangent of a subplot concerning a folksy love triangle between three more (Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Fred MacMurray). The action bits, though not always poorly filmed, are sparse in comparison to the rambling exposition and emotionless character development. Most of the actors seem as bored as we are. There are a couple laughs to be had (three children hiding in overturned trash cans to escape the swarm; Michael Caine giving Katharine Ross a brief "Life May Survive" speech as a raging firestorm is rear-projected behind him), but take away a couple and you still have 154 grimaces and watch glances.

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