Why complicate matters? “The Swarm” – which premiered its first three episodes at the Berlinale Series – is one of those expensive pan-global coproductions necessitating copious logistics, not least a carefully observed quota of performers from each territory pumping money into the production pot. Its opener casts its net as wide as Peru, Canada and the Scottish Highlands, and that’s just for starters.
The series title, meanwhile, invites confusion with not just 1978’s infamous Michael Caine venture – a disaster movie in all senses – but Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’ Prime Video-bound “Swarm,” itself launching next month.
In and of itself, however, this eight-parter proves reassuringly straightforward and familiar. Its briny pulp – dredged from Frank Schätzing’s 2004 novel, a Central European bestseller originally earmarked for big-screen adaptation by the late Dino De Laurentiis – preys heavily on viewer fears of ecological collapse, and what might be lurking for us all beneath the planet’s watery depths. Yet the logline is as simple, and as quickly grasped, as these things get: “Jaws” rejigged for a generation of Greta Thunbergs.
We plunge into disaster-movie formula from the prologue, charting the sorry fate of an anonymous Peruvian set upon by unusually aggressive minnows. The focus then expands outwards to those reading the ripples with furrowed brows. In Scotland, we join wide-eyed marine biologist Charlie (Leonie Benesch), whose mounting alarm at haywire equipment readings is scarcely alleviated after falling into bed with hunky fisherman Douglas (Jack Greenlees). Halfway around the globe, a lovelorn pathologist (Alexander Karim) establishes a link with the production’s Japanese personnel. And over in Canada, a whale specialist (Joshua Odjick) witnesses the most obvious sign that something’s gone environmentally awry, as a rogue faction of Orcas lays waste to a whale-watching boat – and its two-legged contents.
The episodes shown in Berlin were set-up: we divined what’s in the water and its potential effects, but not what can be done to counter any of it. Yet the show’s great strength was already apparent: it’s TV covering a lot of ground at a high rate of knots. If anything lingers of the disaster movies that swam in the wake of “Jaws,” it’s their clunkiness; those rusting vessels could take a whole half-hour to execute basic plot turns. Notably sleeker and speedier, “The Swarm” has been built to binge, even as it seems likely to prompt less attentive viewers to ask “wait, so where are we now?” Episode two whisks us from Canada via Norway to France, where – in a textbook pulp manoeuvre – virologist Cecile de France is called away from rising hospital admissions to untangle some knotty childcare arrangements.
That speed yanks us around multiple implausibilities, through the odd sudsy stretch, and past the swathes of Science Talk required to get this plot up and running. Doubtless producers returned to Schätzing’s novel out of a sense its premise might land more seriously in an unnaturally heated post-pandemic landscape; in reality, we’re not quite there yet. It’s senior whitecoat Barbara Sukowa – a long way from her early Rainer Werner Fassbinder collaborations – who breaks the grim news that this environmental uprising is down to “a new species of ice worms,” reportedly burrowing into the Earth’s frozen core with scant regard for their humanoid neighbors. She deserves every Euro on her paycheck for keeping a straight face as she does.
What the show is racing towards is Roland Emmerich-ish spectacle, and on this front, “The Swarm” delivers. Those stray Orcas, a mixed bag of pixels, aren’t fooling anyone much, but elsewhere early-season directors Luke Watson (“Ripper Street,” “Britannia”) and Barbara Eder (“Barbarians”) alight on arresting tableaux: a Venice drained by thirsty jellyfish, boats swallowed whole, a tense deep-sea dive – a literal and figurative fishing expedition – in episode three. (Philipp Stölzl will steer the show into port, overseeing the final episodes.) The writing revels in the presence of water, water everywhere: anybody ordering the lobster shrimp is begging for trouble, and even a carwash holds the potential to become an incident scene, providing no guarantee of full or satisfactory service.
The money’s gone on hokum, then, but it’s streamlined, well-marshalled hokum: even as half your brain is writing the whole scenario off as nonsense, your remaining cells are egging it on with an amused “yeah, but what if?” I fear this team may run out of ships to sink – and inventive ways to sink them – come the show’s home stretch. Yet sheer narrative momentum – an urgent sense something grave and damp is creeping up on all these characters, papery though they sometimes appear – carries “The Swarm” some distance further than expected. This viewer will be tuning in again, keen to see whether those Orcas will ever chill out, and if marine biologists and hunky fishermen, like adjacent water signs, are as natural a match as they sound. Mutated ice worms couldn’t drag me away.