Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Swarm, on CW

The oceans have always been dangerous. Ships sink. People drown. That was even before something started apparently weaponizing marine life against us. Obviously, the most responsible course of action would be draining the oceans and paving over the sea floors. Presumably, that is the intended message of this new European-produced English-language environmental thriller. Adapted from Frank Schatzing’s door-stopper novel, the eight-episode The Swarm kicks off Tuesday night on the CW.

First the whales started acting strangely homicidal, which is quite puzzling to First Nations cetologist Leon Atawak. Then an outbreak tears through France, which virologist Dr. Cecile Roche traces back to mutated lobsters. Dr. Sigur Johanson, reluctantly consulting for a Scandinavian energy corporation, finds a similar mutation in sea worms right in a trench they were prospecting. It turns out those little creepy crawlers can burrow at a remarkably fast clip—so much so, they could destabilize continents.

Grad student Charlie Wagner also identifies strange oceanic hotspots that seem to correspond to areas of unexplained marine phenomenon, including the sinking of the research vessel her best friend was assigned to. Eventually, these globally scattered scientists (not including any Americans) will discover strange signals that possibly tie all these events together. Unfortunately, the world’s bureaucrats are not ready to listen to them. They are too busy with the armies of mutant crabs over-running coastal populations. At least there is a Japanese shipping tycoon who has been monitoring their findings.

Beyond the environmental finger-wagging, the series’s greatest drawback is the shallow characterization. Each major character gets one really nice, emotionally resonant scene, but they are all spread out over eight episodes. Mostly, we watch Johanson, Wagner, Atawak, and Roche point at computer screens and complain about how nobody listens to them. Meanwhile, there is a cameo from Dr. Fauci admitting his agency funded a Chinese study that created aggressive mutant crabs and lobsters, purely for research purposes, but that is totally coincidental to the current outbreaks. Okay, just kidding.

This was clearly an expensive production (reportedly, it is the biggest budgeted German TV production ever), featuring a lot of decent looking underwater cinematography, maritime disasters, and mollusks behaving badly. Yet, ironically, it largely neglects the human element.

Cecile de France (one of the most recognizable faces) is woefully under-utilized as Dr. Roche. Alexander Karim broods pretty well as Johanson and Oliver Masucci is reliably steely as Captain Jaspar Alban, who skippers the vessel that makes many of the discoveries. By far, Barbara Sukowa fares the best as Dr. Lehmann, Wagner’s more sensitive than she looks research director. However, Leonie Benesch most obviously suffers from the inconsistency of the show’s writing. Sometimes she is great and sometimes it is uncomfortable watching Wagner’s moody tantrums.

So, you’d better start eating a lot of crab and lobster, because its them or us. Admittedly, the battery of directors, Luke Watson, Barbara Eder, and Philipp Stolzl (who also directed
North Face and Chess Story, with Masucci) do not make shellfish look so appetizing, but a little drawn butter always goes a long way. The globe-trotting and sea-faring elements are sometimes diverting, but the lecturing gets tiresome and it all builds to a very silly conclusion. Not recommended, The Swarm premieres Tuesday (9/12) on the CW.