Netflix advises we have until March 31 to watch The Swarm before the movie about killer bees buzzes off from the streaming platform.
Those who appreciate truly bad films should heed this warning at all costs because they may never again witness an abomination as spectacular as Irwin Allen's famous 1978 train wreck (which features a train wreck).
There are quite a lot of warnings doled out in this disastrous example of the big budget disaster genre, mostly by Michael Caine, who, like a lyrebird, wanders from scene to scene in lovely brown plumage displaying a remarkable spectrum of vocal talent. In fact, you could find no better source for Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's hilarious Michael Caine-offs as delivered in their Trip franchise than Sir Michael's manic performance in The Swarm (not to be confused with The Bees, also from 1978, or 2020 French film La Nuee).
One minute, the celebrated British actor, who plays an entomologist called Dr Bradford Crane, is subdued and rational, the next, he is bellowing with a kind of volcanic, guerrilla-attack gusto, which, if harnessed, would not only easily account for an invasion of pesky mutant insects, could provide sufficient energy to power every household on the face of the Earth, a planet for which Sir Michael obviously cares deeply because no self-respecting thespian could scream the following without really meaning it ...
"THE HONEYBEE IS VITAL TO THE ENVIRONMENT! EVERY YEAR IN AMERICA THEY POLLINATE SIX BILLION DOLLARS WORTH OF CROPS! IF YOU KILL THE BEE, YOU'RE GOING TO KILL THE CROP! IF YOU KILL THE PLANTS, YOU'LL KILL THE PEOPLE! NO! NO, GENERAL!"
The member of the US top brass Sir Michael is lecturing very loudly at is General Thalius Slater, played by Richard Widmark, who, understandably, just wants to crack out the Mortein and be home by dinner and whose incredulity at the situation in which he's found himself matches our own when it begins to dawn on him/us just how terrible/wonderful this movie is.
Throughout this two-and-a-half-hour war of attrition (the theatrical release was a merciful 116 minutes), Widmark serves as a much-needed foil to yo-yoing Sir Michael, challenging his credentials and clipping his smarmy, sciency, sunflower-seed-eating (true) swagger, while simultaneously supplying the kind of relentless, blunt-object exposition that won't be seen again until South Park comes on the scene some 20 years in the future.
As the film begins, Widmark simply can't believe Sir Michael, a civilian, has just waltzed into a high-security, subterranean defence facility and has nothing to do with the deaths of most of its personnel. It's a reasonable suspicion and Sir Michael suggests Widmark contact a "Dr Connors" at the White House, who can vouch for his bona fides.
"Arthur Connors? The President's adviser?" Widmark asks.
"That's him," Sir Michael says.
Seconds later, when Katharine Ross sleepwalks into shot, we learn there are many sides to Dr Brad. Playing an air force medico who managed to save a few lives in the bee attack, Ross laments the facility's lack of appropriate pharmaceutical firepower in the face such a scenario.
"I have cardiopep compound in my van," turtlenecked Sir Michael fairly purrs to Ross, surely inviting her to catch the elevator up to the surface right now and join him in his Scooby Doo-style mystery machine upon which they can hang a sign which reads: "If this van full of cardiopep's-a rockin-don't come-a-knockin".
Ross somehow misses the point and explains how cardiopep "normalises irregular heartbeat". Not only is this great news for victims of the attack on the base, it explains her sphinx-like performance in The Swarm, because she's clearly dosing up on bucketloads of the stuff before each lamentable snap of the clapperboard.
But Ross is far from the only high-end cast member realising in real time Stirling Silliphant's bizarre screenplay based on the 1974 novel by Arthur Herzog is risking their credibility, earning potential and sanity.
Known as the "master of disaster", director/producer Irwin's successful habit of subjecting ensembles to epic danger (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno) has attracted a long list of formidable players to what will prove his box office bomb. Some (Fred MacMurray) will end their careers with The Swarm, while others, such as Richard Chamberlain, disguised not nearly cleverly enough in a beard, will just be hoping it doesn't derail theirs.
And speaking of derailments, a lot of the actors are lucky enough to be killed off when a rail evacuation from a little Texas town in the middle of its annual flower festival (should've gone with the gay pride parade) goes awry. The poor excuse for a disaster scene (Buster Keaton did a far superior job way back in 1926) is attributed to the bees attacking the drivers but you really do have to question the pair's technical currency considering they're supposedly in control of a high-tech cockpit wearing the striped apparel - complete with neckerchiefs and hog heads - of engineers from the steam era.
Then again, maybe they're just fans of Dexys Midnight Runners.
The Swarm's denouement (spoiler aler ... ahh, who cares) represents a far more accurate nod to the decade in which it was filmed, when sound is used to bait the bees to the Gulf of Mexico, an airtight strategy with absolutely no possibility of failure.
"Won't the noise of the helicopter drown out your sound?" Ross, suddenly lucid and potentially risky to the plot, asks Sir Michael.
"No, it's an entirely different sonic level," he snaps, shutting the cardiopepped pedant down immediately.
Anyway, once the black clouds of bees have been lured to the pristine gulf, they're destroyed by a big fire accelerated by a deliberate oil slick.
This pyrrhic victory for mankind is one thing but we seem to have failed in our attempts to synthesise an antidote for the African bees' (worryingly referred to as just "Africans" for the whole movie) poison, meaning we're still vulnerable to more invasions.
Sir Michael admits if an antidote can't be perfected "we might just as well pack it all in and ship out to New Zealand".
Talk about a disaster.
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