Friday, November 19, 2010

Bee Minus

Yesterday, I mentioned a film that Michael Caine describes as his worst movie, and that it's in the process of being remade. A bit of curiosity caused me to look the movie up on Netflix and, sure enough, it's available on Netflix Instant. Regular readers may have already figured out that what you are reading right now is the start of my latest Liveblog and that you can all now sit back and enjoy my real time comments on this oldie-but-not-a-goodie from 1978...THE SWARM!

0:01:30 -- This movie is 2 and a half hours long so I'll have to pace these comments but, in addition to Michael Caine, the credits have names like Olivia DeHavilland, Ben Johnson, Richard Chamberlain, Katherine Ross and Henry Fonda. In other words, the dream cast if you're making a movie in 1978 such as this one. Plus, it was written by the writers of Towering Inferno and directed by Irwin Allen, the guy who produced that not-great-but-decent movie. This means The Swarm should be the bestest movie and I shouldn't be the least bit put off by the fact that, right now, I'm seeing guys with rifles running around some military base in the desert dressed in white jumpsuits and helmets that make them look like they're in some sort of Imperial Stormtrooper fantasy camp.

0:10:00 -- I REALLY have to pace myself or this will end up being 2 parts but the Stormtroopers are actually American military investigating why they lost contact with this missile base. They get to the control room and find several dead members of the Air Force. The control room itself is one of those movie control rooms with machines that have lots and lots of buttons and blinking lights that don't seem to actually do anything and monitors that do nothing but show squiggly lines going back and forth. You'd think you'd want these things to be labeled instead of just referring to everything as "the machine that goes ping" so you don't, you know, accidentally set off a missile or anything but I guess they were less risk averse back in the Carter years. The only living person they found on the base is Michael Caine dressed in a heavy jacket and a turtleneck. In other words, the exact opposite of what you'd want to be wearing in the middle of a desert. He's extraordinarily cool and cryptic considering he's the only guy left alive after some sort of devastation and now has several guns trained on him.

The only consolation I can offer him is that even Jaws 4 won't be as bad as this.

-- Michael Caine is a bee expert named Bradford Crane and he's there because he was tracking this swarm of killer bees when they came down on this missile base. He's such a world renowned bee guy that the President actually gives him full control over the military and the full resources of the U.S. government to fight the swarm. This may sound odd but most of you are probably too young to remember that the 1970s were the time when entomologists were the most highly regarded members of our society and most disaster movies were ridiculed for not having one in charge of whatever problems they were facing. We also met Dr. Helena Anderson played by Katherine Ross. You may remember her from The Graduate or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because I know you don't remember her from this. She managed to save a few swarm victims and says the bees have an especially potent venom. She also sweats a lot. In fact, everyone sweats a lot except for Michael Caine. I don't know how he pulled that off. Meanwhile, a boy who watched his parents get stung to death has driven into some small Texas town on the day of a big parade. This would have been perfect if someone had said, "We can't cancel the parade. Do you know how much money we'd lose?" but no one did.

1:00:00 -- I got a little excited when Henry Fonda showed up as a wheelchair bound immunologist named Dr. Henry Krim. I was less excited when Caine wheeled Fonda around for a very long seven minute tour of the base. I know it was that long because I kept looking at the clock saying things like, "Oh God, is this not over yet?" and, "No way! Only seven minutes have passed? AAAAHHH!" Caine organizes a briefing filled with famous faces. Fred MacMurray and Olivia DeHavilland play the mayor and school superintendent of the jerkwater Texas town near the base so they naturally qualify to be included in a high level top secret military briefing. Richard Chamberlain is there as another bee guy who swears that no way, no how could these be the African killer bees. I assume Caine wanted him there so he could lord his superior bee knowledge over and give us another exciting scene of a slide show about bee wings that proves that OH YEAH these are definitely the African killer bees. In case you're wondering, back in the 70s, and this is true, there were wildly overblown reports of African killer bees that had spread to South America and were supposed to be here to kill us all by 1990. Remember when that happened? Did I mention that the bees are intelligent? More intelligent than average bees anyway and certainly more intelligent than whoever gave the greenlight to this movie.

1:30:00 -- When a general wants to drop insecticide on a swarm, Caine objects because it will also kill American honey bees. This strategy leads to the swarm messing with Texas by attacking that town Fred MacMurray is the mayor of and 200 people die but at least the honey bees are all right. Caine still objects to using chemical agents because...oh hell, I don't know why. It's not like they'd have to spray everywhere. This swarm shows up on radar. During the bee invasion, Caine and Katherine Ross hid in a pantry climate controlled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that puts bees to sleep. For some reason, this is also the scene where Caine finally broke a sweat. Is keeping cool in hot weather and sweating in cool temperatures something that happens to British men that I'm only just hearing about? Oh, I can't possibly overstate the intense excitement during a scene where Caine, Fonda and Richard Chamberlain are collecting venom and brushing bees off each other. This is actually a director's cut and it's great that this awesome bee brushing scene was saved from the cutting room floor. I looked at Henry Fonda's face as I'm sure he was thinking, "How the hell did I end up here? I used to work with John Ford," but he looked fine. That's how good an actor he was.

Check out the awesome special effects. Could someone please invent CGI?

2:00:00 -- Due to the movie's length, there have been several subplots I've had to ignore. One is that Olivia DeHavilland's character is being pursued both by Fred MacMurray and a local businessman played by famed character actor Ben Johnson. Both men ask her to marry them but luckily for her, she doesn't have to choose when the train they're all on is attacked by bees. Mind you, MacMurray and Johnson would have been fine had they not obviously and hilariously tossed themselves out of a window. I bitch a lot about the poor quality of CGI today but this movie reminds me that there were crap special effects before that was created. That thought was brought to mind both by the swarm that basically looks like a smudge on the camera lens and the crash of the obviously toy train. This movie was made at the same time as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so there's really no excuse for this. Another thing for which there is no excuse is the number of people who died and no attempt was made to revive them. I know CPR existed back then. Did people refuse to learn it because they thought it was too much like kissing? One of the guys who was allowed to die was Henry Fonda's character though, for an actor of Fonda's stature and caliber, taking him out of the movie was more of a mercy killing. Fonda's genius doctor character decided to test out his new bee venom antidote on himself so he injected himself with the equivalent of six bee stings and died when the antidote didn't work. This, of course, could only have happened to a true genius. The good news, of course, is that the movie's almost over.

2:34:00 -- Oh, are we done so soon? Another great character actor, Jose Ferrer, showed up as the director of a nuclear power plant. After bragging that no way would an attacking bee swarm cause his plant to blow up, the bees attack and the plant blows up causing the deaths of 36,000 people. Good thing they didn't harm all those poor honey bees with insecticides, eh? Not that it would have done any good since they finally do try harsh chemicals and the bees are immune. Then, when the bees are in Houston, they decide that a half dozen guys with flame throwers will be sufficient to burn up 5 billion bees, an idea that, shockingly, turns out to be wrong. Finally, after things have gone from "fucked" to "totally fucked" to "fucked as fucked can be," Caine puts those blinking machines with the reel-to-reel tapes going non stop to use and discovers the bees are attracted to sound waves that simulate their mating call. In a moment of topical irony, he gets the military to create an artificial oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, draws the bees to it with the sound waves and sets them all on fire giving a movie that killed around 40,000 people a happy ending. And, that's it. I hope none of this ruins the upcoming remake. I'd to think I caused that movie to get bad buzz. You all think about that while I wonder how the hell Michael Caine, one of our greatest actors, wound up being a target for my jokes for a second time.

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