After capsizing an ocean liner in The Poseidon Adventure" and torching a skyscraper in "The Towering Inferno," director Irwin Allen yesterday unleashed his latest catastrophic vision on 1,400 movie theaters across the country: "The Swarm," a tale of havoc wreaked by roving bands of African killer bees.
While subtlety has never been a strong theme in Allen's films, "The Swarm does manage to turn the industrious little honeybee into a menace so seemingly convincing that America may go bee-crazy this summer.
Forget about sharks, forget about skyscrapers, forget about inverted cruises, and forget about Hitchcock's birds. Bees are a much more immediate presence in most people's lives, and Allen has coverted every man's fear of a simple title sting into a maniacal life and death struggle.
What makes the "The Swarm" so potentially unerving is the little amount of scientific knowledge that's been gleaned about African killer bees. Ever since 1956, when 26 belligerent queen bees escaped from a Brazilian laboratory, researchers have debated how violent the mutant strain might become and how far the plague might spread. While there have been numerous deaths attributed to the bees in South America, not a single African bee has been positively identified, even as far north as Central America.
Allen fudges the facts, and that's that makes "The Swarm" a real candidate for inciting public mass hysteria. He puts the killer bees in Texas where they've wiped out a missile base, downed two helicopters, precipitated a train crash, decimated [WORD ILLEGIBLE] small town and forced the evacuation of Houston.
All this is done with typical Allen overstatement. Not just one helicopter has to hit the ground and explode; he needs two. Not just one train car explodes; four do, in sequence. The final confrontation in Houston makes the burning of Atlanta in "Gone with the Wind" seem like a marshallow roast.
That's easy enough to toss off as typical heavyweight Hollywood dross. But there's something eerily awesome when Allen has swarms of bees darkening the skies in shots that echo De Mille's locust plague in the "Ten Commandments."
his microphotography makes the bees look threatening when they assume the full size of the movie screen, and in one spectacular sequence - when the bees attack a picknicking family - he throws in a bee's-eye view shot of a mom trying to wipe the little guys out with a can of Raid. Ten seconds later she and her husband are dead and covered with bees and Junior is trapped in the family's car, the windshield wipers intermittently clearing bees away long enough so he can see the horror outside.
It's enough to give anybody the willies.
Unfortunately - or perhaps fortunately - Allen has coaxed better performances from the 22 million bees he used in the film than from most of his actors. Richard Widmark is so wooden as a hard-headed general that he gives a performance worthy of a Three Stooges parody on the military caste. Entymologist Michael Caine takes such an alarmist and "I-told-you-so" attitude that his fleeting romance with Katharine Ross, an Air Force physician, seems out of character.
One of Allen's few redeeming graces as a director is that he can dish out minor roles to the likes of Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray, Olivai de Havilland and Slim Pickens. They seem to parody old characters they've already played (MacMurray proposing to de Havilland, Pickens threatening to shut off the missile's water supply), but it's more refreshing than when Allen, who is essentially a stunt choreographer, tries to evoke some serious acting.
On the plus side, Allen's basic movie-making skills are sound. The $13-million film looks crisp and clean.An idiot could follow the story line and two hours could go by without many glimpses at the wristwatch. In short, the perfect made-for-TV movie.