The first time we see the big black swarm buzzing over the California countryside, we have the same reaction as the poor helicopter pilot who has been dispatched to encounter them. “Bees!” he cries. “Bees?” the military commanders back at the missile base want to know. “Bees!” they are told again. “Oh my God, bees! Millions of bees!” He can’t believe it and the men back at base can’t believe and we can’t believe it either. This is a disaster movie in which the enemy is not aliens or a looming volcano; it is bees. “We’ve been fighting a losing battle against the insects for fifteen years,” says top entomologist Bradford Crane (Michael Caine), “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.” You and me both, pal.
Don’t confuse bees with birds. “The Birds” was Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, who took the seemingly absurd premise of rogue birds attacking a coastal town and transformed into something – if not revealing, really, really scary. “The Swarm” was Irwin Allen, the master of disaster, who took the seemingly absurd premise of rogue bees attacking a coastal town, and eventually America the Beautiful, and transformed into something long, ludicrous and nowhere near as fun as it should be. If anything, it’s serious, almost intensely serious. If “The Towering Inferno”, Allen’s skyrise calamity, had Paul Newman playing at a bemused remove throughout, “The Swarm” has Caine shouting, convinced to high heaven that everyone in America is about to be stung to death. This, his furrowed brow suggests, is no laughing matter.
Like so many other Allen vehicles, he somehow coaxed an all-star A-list cast, giving this high-class trash a little sparkle, $6 wine retailed for $27.50. I kept imagining how the immortal Olivia de Havilland felt stranded in a supporting role as Maureen, the schoolteacher, who gets marriage proposals from two different old-timers (Fred MacMurray and Ben Johnson) in a subplot that never fails to feel patently absurd, existing so a few big-time actors can get come on and get killed off. I kept imagining that MacMurray talked DeHavilland into taking part in this bomb. “C’mon, O! It’ll be fun! Everybody’s doing it! Even Henry Fonda!” And then I imagined de Havilland at the craft services table during production throwing deviled eggs at MacMurray while shouting “THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!”
The movie opens on a legitimately suspenseful note, in which a group of soldiers outfit in protective orange suits, as if there has been some sort of leak, infiltrate a military base that turns out to be a missile silo, and find everyone within it slumped at their mammoth 1978-styled computers, dead. In this moment, the characters don’t precisely know what’s happened. And it’s interesting to consider how “The Swarm” might have played if we were 1.) Strung along further and 2.) The bees themselves were rarely seen.
Alas, they are constantly seen, over and over, mostly in swarm-form, but occasionally in smaller ranks, like when they go after a picnicking family of three that looks like the family of three from “Airplane!” two years later. In this scene, we even get a Bee Point-of-View shot. It’s some sort of half-hearted attempt at the psychological, insects as voyeurs into our pedestrian lives, which is only half as bad as as a later scene when the traumatized kid is in a hospital and convinced a bee is in the room with him. We see the bee he thinks he sees, in fact, a giant bee, like Lou Ferrigno has dressed up in a bee costume and is standing there. It is astonishing how bad these moments of hallucinated big bees are, and I can only imagine what the editors thought when they were forced to see these scenes.
The film’s principal antagonistic relationship, more so than the bees, is between Bradford Crane and General Thaddeus Slater (Richard Widmark), who is forced, per the President, to relinquish all control of this eliminate-the-bees campaign. The military man wants to douse all the bees with chemicals, naturally, while Crane is forced to explain, over and over, just how vital the bee actually is to the environment. There’s a kernel of something there, almost “Avatar”-esque, as if Allen had wanted to push this wannabe blockbuster into a pro-environmental realm. That’s wishful thinking. Instead it falls back on all the usual ways out of the maze, not limited to flamethrowers, and with a tiny little twist that made me think of the martians in “Mars Attacks!” ultimately being undone by Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call”......just, you know, not as funny. Where’s Tom Jones when you need him?