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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/15/02

The Swarm
1978 (2002) - Warner Brothers

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Swarm

Film Rating: C

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B-/C-

Specs and Features

155 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:19:29, in chapter 22), Snapper case packaging, Inside the Swarm featurette, theatrical trailer, cast & crew bios, film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (45 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, Closed Captioned

"Bees! Bees! Millions of bees!"

Is there anything more cinematically satisfying than a 1970's disaster flick? Sure there is, but the finished product was ultimately so overblown, melodramatic, and - best of all - campy, that taking one in I'm sure becomes something different than was originally intended. Somehow or another, these films always managed to snag marquee actors for the leading roles and, just for kicks, yanked a lot of Tinseltown retirees of out of their rockers for one last hurrah at the box office. Director Irwin Allen crafted his fair share of these films. His The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are classics of the genre (if you want to give it a full genre of its own) and ushered in a mini-wave of lackluster wannabes. The Swarm, sort of the disaster film swansong, tanked in theatres. But pay no mind to that! Warner has issued the cheese-fest to DVD for a new generation to re-discover.

In southern Texas, a military surveillance team comes across a research outpost full of dead, bloated, bee-stung scientists. One of the surviving members of the team, entomologist Brad Crane (Michael Caine), warns General Slater (Richard Widmark) that this is just the beginning of something bigger. Naturally, they poo poo his insistence that the culprit is an angry swarm of African killer bees, that are slowly and steadily making their way into North America. Well, he'll show them! Lucky for Dr. Crane, he's got a friend in Dr. Helena Anderson (Katharine Ross). She backs up every farfetched story of his based solely on faith and wide-eyed admiration. But a growing trail of dead bodies that leads directly toward the peaceful town of Marysville (a town so innocent, it's about to have its annual Flower Days celebration) leads to a change in attitude for the general and even the President. Soon enough, Crane is in charge of the whole operation and makes it clear that it's his way or none at all.

The Swarm seems torn between the goofy temptation to take itself seriously and the urge to treat the material as camp send-up. At times, Allen and company try their best to present the bees (strangely referred to as only "the Africans" as the film progresses) as a legitimate threat to the safety and well-being of good, hard working Americans. Rest assured, the cheese factor takes over and makes for occasional glimpses of enjoyable viewing. My personal favorites are the bee's-eye view (multiple lenses and all) of a happy picnicking family and the hallucinatory visions of station wagon-sized buzzers that haunt the hapless sting victims. I can't see how those things would produce anything but a laugh, even on paper. Some of the performances in The Swarm border on comatose, as Allen manages to even-handedly wrangle one bad performance after another out of a fully capable company of actors. Even screen legend Henry Fonda comes off as rigid and dull. Unfortunately, the extended viewing time really drags down the pace of The Swarm. A good 30 or 40 minutes could easily have been shaved off the running time without harming the movie. I love bad B-grade cinema, but even I found it hard to sit through the bad stuff to get to the nitty gritty of the death and mayhem. I don't need to be bothered with hours of dramatic foreplay. Brings on the bees, and I'm set.

Warner's DVD presentation of The Swarm looks miles better than I even thought it had the potential to look. The image has been anamorphically treated and is presented in its original aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1. Warner has obviously taken good care of the source print; it's sparkling clean and shows only a few hints of age defects (mainly in the form of speckles and an occasional light scratch). Color reproduction and saturation levels are maintained properly, as are black level and shadow detailing. Some edge enhancement produces a few scenes with noticeable haloing effects, however that's all you'll really see for transfer-related flaws.

Though the DVD packaging denotes the presence of both an English and a French audio track, there is only the English language track. The 2.0 surround mix is satisfactory, but has a limited fidelity range typical of that era of filmmaking. Early in the film, bass extension is thin and flat, but it picks up pace as the film progresses. Surround usage is also slow to start, and the film score that dominates most of the rear channels' time, but that makes way for some super duper buzzing effects later on in the film. Dialogue levels are acceptable, so you shouldn't miss a word of this oh, so plot-heavy epic.

The extras are light, but are noteworthy for their laugh factor more than anything else. First, and most readily apparent to fans of The Swarm, is the near 40 minutes of extra film that has been tacked on to the original 2-hour theatrical running time. Most of this is devoted to even more unneeded character development, including a love triangle between Ben Johnson, Olivia De Havilland and Fred MacMurray, that's worthy only of dry heaves. The courtship of Brad Crane and Helena Anderson also hogs more screen time, and we get to watch them canoodle endlessly around town. Very touching stuff. There's some extra buzzworthy bee stuff thrown in as well, but most of the added footage is unwanted people banter.

The cast and crew bios mention just about everyone involved in the film, but only provide any sort of extended information on director Irwin Allen. Everyone else just gets a mention. The trailer looks very good for its age, and heralds the movie as a true-to-life depiction of the apocalyptic bees that were to take over North America in the near future. Best of all is the made-for-television special, Inside the Swarm. It's 22 minutes of pure '70's boob tube fluff. Cast and crew alike attest to the hard work that went into bringing the epic bomb to the big screen. It's also blindingly obvious from the feature that Irwin's real priority is special effects. He pays near zero attention to the actors, and it's evident in every bad performance this film garnered.

Even with its over-the-top production values and hammy acting, The Swarm isn't an easy recommend. I'm not sure what marker Warner was trying to please with the extended version offered on DVD, but it's there for anyone who wants it. It's not a particularly tempting movie, even as far as cookie cutter disaster flicks go, but it does possess a certain agreeable goofiness that makes one viewing pleasant enough. If pleasant enough if more than enough for you, give the DVD a spin.

Dan Kelly
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