“The Swarm” (1978)

by A.J. Hakari

"The Swarm" poster


For an idea of who Irwin Allen was, imagine if Roland Emmerich actually made good movies. Yeah, Independence Day, and Stargate has its fans, but the man has nothing on Allen, who racked up a prolific career in sci-fi television even before producing his ’70s disaster movie classics. The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno — Allen blew crap up magnificently and managed to cast half of Hollywood every time he did it. But not even he could ignore the colossal thud that rattled theaters everywhere when 1978’s The Swarm crashed and burned. With ten times the cost of The Giant Spider Invasion and none of the entertainment value, this bugs-on-the-loose thriller is as big, bloated, and boring as spectacle cinema can get.

At an underground military base in Texas, the unthinkable has happened. A mysterious, lethal force has wiped out nearly the entire staff of highly-trained soldiers and scientists. What would be responsible for this massacre? Bombs? Chemical warfare? Zombies? The culprit, as it turns out, is none other than the bane of Nicolas Cage’s existence — bees. That is, a mutant strain of those African killer bees you heard all about as a kid, having come together in one enormous swarm. Luckily, entemologist Brad Crane (Michael Caine) is on the case, having anticipated an invasion by the pests for some time and assembling a crack squad of specialists to handle them. But time is precious, for not only are the bee attacks seemingly random and increasingly deadly, Crane must deal with a skeptical general (Richard Widmark) in order to save Houston from turning into a massive hive.

With Jaws, Steven Spielberg famously used production delays to his advantage. With his shark on the fritz, Spielberg could instead focus on building up its presence and connecting with the characters, which made the beast’s eventual on-screen debut all the more effective. The Swarm tries going by the same logic, but whether we’re looking at the badly-composed effects or actors hilariously flailing in terror, we’re left rolling our eyes — in laughter or boredom, take your pick. Spoken of in the film as some cataclysmic scourge, the bees simply aren’t an intimidating threat, and this is coming from a guy who’ll flip out like a southern society matron if one of them flies into his car. Be it the transparently phony way they’ve been inserted into many shots by post-production or the inherent goofiness of their attacks (which include — and I’m dead serious — blowing up a nuclear power plant), the buggers just ain’t scary, no matter how often they’re shown laying waste to kids and old people with equally extreme prejudice.

And what of the human element, you ask? The Swarm‘s bajillions of bees are the main event, but how do our two-legged stars fare? Well, as always, Allen has assembled a dynamite cast, whose ranks lay claim to faces like Caine, Widmark, Katharine Ross, Slim Pickens, Fred MacMurray, Henry freaking Fonda, and boatloads of others. But I’ll be damned if the strain on their mugs isn’t from fear of a bee assault as much as from wondering if they’ll cash their paychecks before the bank closes. Some of the actors suck it up and soldier on just fine; Caine delivers most of his lines with a straight face, and Pickens has a genuinely moving scene as a father grieving over his pilot son’s death. But the general disinterest spread amongst the players — whose roles are too compartmentalized into subplots to care about any of them — does nothing to help sell the apocalyptic danger they’re supposed to be suffering. If Olivia de Havilland doesn’t give a shit about whether or not she’s taken out by a winged death cloud, what hope of becoming invested do we have?

The Swarm bides its two and a half hours (plus change) hurling every celebrity or silly stunt it can at the viewer; the only thing it forgot to pack was actual suspense. This is one ’70s bomb that really does live up to its bad reputation, a stillborn behemoth in which unintentional laughs only carry you so far and where its own performers reflect our impatience right back at us. Some of its era’s disaster flicks can coast on cheesy thrills alone, but The Swarm is all stench and zero flavor.