Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Netflix Roulette: The Swarm (1978)

My stomach did a little bit of a roll when The Swarm (1978, directed by Irwin Allen) came up for review. I saw The Swarm in theaters when I was a kid, and even then, I knew it pretty much sucked. It's the epitome of the "box" movie, in which the producers, having assembled an all-star cast, put a row of headshots of their actors along the bottom of the poster, with the name of the actor annotated with the name of their character or role (George Kennedy as The Cop! Maximillian Schell as The Commandant!). The more "names" the producers assemble, the more likely it is that the movie is going to cut corners on everything else. The Swarm has a once in a lifetime cast: Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, Bradford Dillman, Olivia De Haviland, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Slim Pickens, and Henry Fonda, to name just a few. And I'll admit, there's a certain amount of cheap fun to be had watching the cast abase themselves in this, but that's only good for about an hour. All-star disaster movies tended to bloat, after all, because, having paid for the stars, they need to showcase them. The Swarm runs something like 160 minutes.

The story here is a rerun of any given big bug movie from the 1950s, even though the bugs in this movie are normal-sized insects. They're still freaks: Africanized honeybees whose stings have become inexplicably lethal and inexplicably directed. The first hint that something is amiss is found by the military, who break into a missile silo in the movie's opening only to find everyone there dead, except for the convenient entomologist and the lady doctor who has managed to rescue enough GI's to confirm the entomologist's cockamamie story. The bees are on the move, next attacking archetypal small town, Marysville, who are conveniently holding their annual flower festival (what are the odds?).

I need to pause for a second here to note the elegant construction of the story here. Seriously, everything is arranged for a worst-case scenario. The movie bends over backwards and sideways, yanking any tendons of credibility completely out of their connections.

The next target on the map is Houston, but in between are a number of other disaster opportunities, including an exploding nuclear plant and an exploding train, neither of which is particularly explicable. The train in particular begs the question of whether all of the passenger cars were loaded with tons of gasoline, because they each go up in a fireball when they hit the bottom of the gorge where they crash (taking several of our actors with it).

The entomologist, for his part, warns of the ecological disaster that would result from the military's plan for poisoning the bees--honeybees, he quite rightly notes, are essential to agriculture. His alternative? Lure the bees over a man-made oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico and burn them to death. Yes. That's MUCH more eco friendly....

Irwin Allen is horrible with actors, though in the early goings, he shows a crude awareness of movie stars. He gives every one of his name stars an "entrance," though I'm baffled as to describe the mechanisms for many of these. Some are obvious. A door slides open and Michael Caine is just there, in all his Michael Caine-ness. Richard Widmark gets a jump cut in which the audience gets to say "Hey! It's Richard Widmark!" While others just walk onscreen, often to an ineffable pause in the flow of the action so the audience can note their presence. Then they start to talk and the whole gig is up. Caine and Widmark mostly shout at each other. No subtlety. Olivia De Havilland gets an anguished scream at the sight of the film's surprising body count of small children. Most emotion is conveyed in terms broad enough to be featured in kabuki. The one exception to this is Katherine Ross, who is a complete cipher, whose huge eyes are total blanks, even in the scenes where she's under huge duress. And has there ever been a more mis-matched romantic couple in movies than Michael Caine and Katherine Ross in The Swarm? I submit that there has not.

Stars aside, the movie just looks cheap. The bee swarm is a particularly risible special effect, obviously superimposed on the frame and not really interacting with the environment at all. The sets all remind me of the TV movies of the day, or, indeed, of The Six Million Dollar Man. This movie came out after Star Wars and, indeed, after the James Bond movies, so the standards of production design were already well beyond what shows up here. For that matter, I've built more convincing architectural models myself than the one the blow up during the nuclear plant scene. Sheesh.

Anyway, this one was a tough slog for me. I don't have the appetite for really rotten movies that I once had, and even though I can see the appeal this movie has as an entertainingly bad movie, I can't believe I wasted two and a half hours watching this in the name of blogging about it. Life's too short for this shit.


GlendaP said...

That movie is so bad I'm surprised Burt Reynolds wasn't in it. The good news is anything with africanized bees makes me think of Belushi.

That's right, gringo. The killer bees!

Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: I've always had a weakness for these "a row of headshots of their actors along the bottom of the poster" movies. Or, as I think of them, "actors-have-mortgages, too" movies. But I haven't seen this one. Olivia De Haviland and Slim Pickens in the same picture. Yep, it's an Irwin Allen! Where's O.J. Simpson and Marlene Dietrich?

You cracked me up listing all the contrived disasters our homing bees encounter - all the flower shows and potential nuclear disasters. God, it might be time for a Irwin Allen Epics festival.

cinemarchaeologist said...

Something I rarely confess is that I actually like THE SWARM. It's godawful. and utterly impossible to defend.

Irwin Allen was notorious for his cheapness, which is hilarious to me, because he never had to be cheap with anything. He just was. He made one bank-breaking, huge-budget extravaganza after another, and (with the exception of his casts) every one of them looked and felt as if he'd thrown it together on a budget Roger Corman would have regarded as inadequate. Getting "star-power" on the cheap by casting has-beens was a trick he used throughout his career. It's actually a really good idea, in theory. You get seasoned pros with name recognition and plenty of experience. Unfortunately, if you hand them a script you picked up at a pawn-shop in exchange for a bag of turnips, there isn't a lot they can do with it. In this one, the Doomsaying Scientist caricature has been collecting bees for testing, and the Straight-Laced General caricature sees it as, potentially, a big problem (this is all paraphrase, so don't hold me to word accuracy):

"When that swarm finds out that some of their friends have been taken captive they might come back."

"Are you endowing these bees with human motives? Like saving their fellow bees from captivity?"

"I always credit my enemy, no matter what he may be, with equal intelligence."

No one would be surprised to find that sort of dialogue in a Sam Katzman picture, but Katzman would have probably had a pair of random homeless guys with twinkles in their eyes reciting it in exchange for a jug of Night Train, and our expectations would have been adjusted accordingly. Allen, on the other hand, gets Richard Widmark and Michael Caine, and has them deliver it in dire earnest.

I actually miss that kind of big-budget-extravaganza-gone-wrong from Hollywood. I wouldn't touch most of those that are ground out these days; the things that made THE SWARM a fiasco and an embarrassment back then are the very things that turn today's awful big-budget "extravaganzas" into huge hits (look at any movie by Roland Emmerich), and they have none of the charm of THE SWARM.