Sunday, August 21, 2016
Caine Watch: The Swarm (1978)
No one is going to accuse The Swarm (1978) of being a great movie. Or, really, even a good movie. Or, you know, a movie.
It may be a bit odd the movie isn't that good as it it's directed by producer of disaster-porn Irwin Allen, but maybe he should have stuck to producing. The movie follows the logic of many-a-disaster movie, which people my age know mostly from Independence Day. Multiple storylines. Scientists trying to understand what's happening. Lots of people die. Lots of famous faces in roles big and small.
Our disaster here? BEES. Which, I really shouldn't make fun of, because this is the kind of shit that is, in fact, going to take humanity out. But... BEES. SWARMS OF KILLER BEES.
Our all-star cast is anchored by Michael Caine who plays The Scientist, or - more specifically - the bee scientist. Other honest-to-god big names include Katherine Ross as The Doctor, Richard Widmark as The General, Richard Chamberlain as The Other Scientist, Cameron Mitchell as The Pentagon Official, Olivia de Havilland as The Aging Beauty, Fred McMurray as deHavilland's SUITOR #1 and Ben Johnson as SUITOR #2. Jose Ferrer as the manager of a nuclear power plant. Patty Duke as a waitress. Slim Pickens as a sad city worker. And a clearly very deaf Henry Fonda shouting lines as YET ANOTHER SCIENTIST WHO DOES NOT KNOW THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD OR BASIC MEDICAL PROTOCOLS.
It's the kind of movie where everyone makes huge mistakes so the story can keep moving (like, hey, maybe send some people out to FIND THE BEES.) During an evacuation of a town because of bees, the train conductors drive with their windows open. The only scientist who could possibly help develop an anti-bee anti-toxin tries out his only batch on himself after injecting himself with toxin while no one is around to help him (he dies).
The movie features long, winding storylines that go absolutely nowhere and then the characters die (because: bees). Gigantic swarms of bees that can cover a town are all over the greater Gulf Coast Region of Texas (which looks suspiciously like Southern California except in a few shots - unless Houston had mountains in '78 and they were removed before I got there in '81). And, really, no understanding of the geography of Houston or even the major industry of the city. And less knowledge of bees than most elementary school kids know after watching an episode or two of The Electric Company.
It truly feels like a movie that was dictated to a secretary over the course of a few boozy evenings and then they just came back and shot the thing. Back in film school my very wise Production Management instructor told us: a movie is inversely proportional in quality to the number of helicopters appearing in that film, and, boy howdy, does The Swarm feature a lot of helicopters.
Michael Caine is, apparently, a very famous etymologist, well respected and known even at The White House (this is the kind of movie that assumes Scientists All Know Each Other). He's been aware bees could bee-come a threat for some time and has his own protocols in place. At the movie's start, he's found inside a bunker where all the soldiers are dead - soldiers who were in a nuclear missile silo. Killed by bees with absolutely no evidence of a bee anywhere in sight.
Caine shouts. A lot. Maybe to be heard as it's quite clear both Widmark and Fonda are deaf as posts and neither really cares all that much about being in the movie. But that's the line-reading he goes with in every scene where he isn't directly addressing Katherine Ross.
And you get the feeling he's a little hurt, because he considered the bees to be our friends.
The movie ends by, first, burning Houston to the ground while the bees are in it. Which, frankly, wouldn't be all that hard to do if you saw downtown Houston before the revitalization circa 2005 or so. And ignores the fact that the 30 mile stretch between South Houston and Galveston is literally nothing but refineries, so if you wanted to get some bee-killing oil...
And when burning Houston down doesn't work - they fill The Gulf of Mexico with oil (which, if you've ever taken a dip off Galveston, you know this took no special efforts) and then light that on fire, which supposedly kills the bees.
It's absolutely insane. And I haven't even talked about the go-nowhere plot with Olivia de Havilland and her suitors. Or the spunky little boy. Or Katherine Ross's yo-yo'ing health.
The Swarm. I recommend it.
Late edit: For more thoughts on The Swarm, bees and the 1970's.