"Billions of dollars have been spent to make these nuclear plants safe...fail-safe. The odds against anything going wrong are astronomical, doctor."
"I appreciate that, doctor, but let me ask you: in all your fail-safe techniques, is there any provision against an attack by killer bees?"
I'm going to put that down as a "no".
"We've been fighting a losing battle against the insects for 15 years, but I never thought I'd see the final face-off in my lifetime. And I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees. They've always been our friends!"
Houston, we have a problem. No, really; a swarm of mutant Africanized honey bees are making a ::ahem:: beeline for H-Town. The buggers shrug off poison pellets, are immune to pesticides, can send helicopters crashing down to the earth below, and slaughter an entire missile base without leaving so much a single dead bee behind*. Even as few as two or three stings can prove fatal.
Thankfully, famed entomologist Brad Crane (Michael Caine) is already on the scene, and he's assembled a dream team to wipe out this swarm without endangering other necessary insect life. Immunologist Dr. Walter Krim (Henry Fonda)! Toxicologist Dr. They-Never-Say-His-First-Name Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain with an ill-advised beard)! And, I dunno, we're talking about a turgid, hopelessly bloated, needlessly complicated Irwin Allen disaster flick, so there are around 35,000 other characters serving little-to-no purpose, many of which are agèd legends from Hollywood's Golden Era for Allen to cold-heartedly kill off.
Despite a sprawling cast that includes the immeasurably talented likes of Caine, Fonda, Chamberlain, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Ben Johnson, Olivia de Havilland, José Ferrer, Patty Duke, and Fred MacMurray, director Irwin Allen surrounds them with bit players who...eh, you're better off hearing for yourself:
Allen has a knack for coaxing the worst from his actors, whether it's Slim Pickens as a bug-eyed, grieving father:
...or Michael Caine, who alternates between hysterical screaming:
...and joining Katharine Ross in putting long, labored pauses between every. single. line. of dialogue:
Allen utilizes his colossal budget to heap on plenty of cinematic gloss, but there's some genuinely dreadful visual effects work, such as the whole thing about the venom from these mutant bees inducing hallucinations:
This is the extended cut of The Swarm, which drones on for two hours and thirty-five minutes. That's nearly as long as my gold standards for killer bee cinema – TV movies The Savage Bees and Terror Out of the Sky – combined. Allen makes the same mistake as too many filmmakers these days in confusing "bloated" with "epic". Arguments about nothing of consequence drag on interminably, such as Crane and Hubbard bickering about whether or not these are Africanized bees. Oh no! Will Patty Duke's about-to-pop pregnant waitress make it to the hospital in time? Who will win Maureen's hand in marriage: Felix or Clarence? Who cares? These characters and their travails have zero bearing on the overarching plot. Beyond all that, you could probably shave a good ten minutes off the runtime if not for the excessive slow motion bee attacks.
Despite its punishingly long, Biblical epic-ish runtime, The Swarm can't possibly service such a massive cast of characters. They're all cardboard cutouts passing themselves off as people, and none of 'em are worth rooting for or warrant any emotional investment. The sight of I don't even know how many corpses – including many dead children – fails to evoke much of a reaction. Shades of Poe Dameron in The Last Jedi, Crane is a wildly ineffectual hero, shooting down everything suggested by the military brass, concocting one scheme after another with chest-puffed-out confidence, yet generally just getting everyone killed.
"So, the occupation of Houston has begun, and General Thaddeus Slater is your first officer in history to get his butt kicked by a mess of bugs."
On the upside, I guess, The Swarm can't help but be accidentally entertaining at times. I mean, a few tween-aged boys chuck Molotov cocktails at an oversized hive and quickly seek sanctuary under metal garbage cans. Awesome! It's surreal to hear a general boast that "by tomorrow, there'll be no more Africans." There's something I find strangely entrancing about the sight of Caine cradling Ford:
And, yeah, there's the spectacle of exploding choppers, a derailed passenger train, and a metropolis in flames, as infrequent as that sort of thing is. Still, the titular swarm doesn't evoke any real menace. The film's generally pointless subplots meander without end. Long, long stretches pass without anything of note happening. The writing is hopelessly clunky, the performances are worse still, and there's not a moment throughout its two and a half hour-plus runtime where I felt my heart race or any rush of adrenaline. The Swarm isn't a gloriously thick slice of '70s disaster movie cheese; this tedious, joyless slog is legitimately one of the worst movies I've suffered through in nearly twenty years of reviewing.
"Houston on fire: will history blame me or the bees?"
Nah, I blame Irwin Allen. Stream It / Rent It, if you must.
At least it looks nice:
The scope image is consistently well-defined and nicely detailed. Though there is some variance, it's startling at times just how crisp The Swarm's photography can be. Nearly every last byte on this BD-50 disc is utilized to ensure that its sheen of grain is reproduced accurately, and the endless swarms of bees don't devolve into any digital artifacting either. Its colors are striking, or at least to whatever extent that such an inexorably '70s palette will allow. As is most always the case for a Warner Archive release, there's no damage or wear worth noting. So, yeah: a terrific release of a dreadful film.
By and large, I'm thrilled with this 24-bit, lossless stereo track. Jerry Goldsmith's score sounds sensational, with all that thundering brass and pounding percussion. So many of The Swarm's sound effects are similarly robust, from slammed car doors to the roar of flamethrowers to the explosive finalé. I can't get enough of the clarity of, say, a crash through a diner window, and there are several times where I found myself impressed by smooth pans across the front channels. The fidelity of the audio stems haven't aged quite so well, showing significant strains at times:
...but it tends to land close enough to where I'd hope it would. Well done.
Also included is an optional set of English (SDH) subtitles.
The Final Word
Yeah, I know the feeling, Maureen.
There's so-bad-it's-good, and then there's The Swarm, a miserable slog of cinematic incompetency that plods along for more than two and a half torturous hours. A disaster thriller light on disasters and all but devoid of thrills, The Swarm delivers a handful of accidental laughs, but mostly it'll just leave you glancing down at your watch over and over, aching for the hurting to stop. It's a technically sound release if, for whatever reason, you chalk yourself up as a fan, but I can't possibly recommend The Swarm as a purchase sight-unseen. Stream It / Rent It.