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The Swarm Could Be the Sleeper Hit of the Fall

With plenty of gory sights and impressive production in store, this eco-thriller is poised to make a splash.
  • A whale prepares to take a dive in The Swarm (Photo: The CW)
    A whale prepares to take a dive in The Swarm (Photo: The CW)

    Hot on the heels of “vengeful orca summer” comes The Swarm, a new sci-fi drama that wonders — and then giddily illustrates — what would happen if all forms of marine life decided they had had enough of humans destroying their environment. It’s kind of like The Happening, minus the clueless lead, or Barry Levinson’s 2019 eco-horror film The Bay, which will absolutely ruin seafood for you.

    The German series is based on Frank Schätzing’s novel of the same name, but the disaster movie tropes abound: the rogue scientist who can’t be expected to obey the rules in the face of global annihilation! Portentous lines of dialogue like “We know more about space than we do the oceans!” The billionaire who thinks his money will save him! A scientist with a patently absurd name! (Although The World Is Not Enough is not a disaster movie, the villain’s plan does call for ecological devastation.)

    But Luke Watson, who splits directing duties with Barbara Eder and Philipp Stölzl, doesn’t just toss viewers into the chaos and leave them to sink or swim. He carefully calibrates the suspense in the series premiere, titled simply “Episode 1.” In the opening moments, a fisherman in Huanchaco sets out on his caballito de totora, a streamlined watercraft that’s been used in Peru for 3,000 years. He thinks he’s made a massive haul, but then he’s pulled underwater. He manages to recover his net just as hundreds of fish start swarming above, blocking out the light and trapping him. No one is around to witness his death, so this early warning will be lost like a message in a bottle.

    Following this ominous scene, the action moves to Vancouver Island, Canada, where Leon Anawak (Joshua Odjick), a First Nations researcher who gives presentations on whale songs in his spare time, grimly surveys the body of a dead orca that has washed ashore. It was part of a pod he’s tracked for years, and he’s further dismayed when he learns that the orca may have attacked some local fishermen. He and his friend Lizzie (Elizabeth Kinnear), who leads a whale-watching tour boat, worry about the pod’s delayed arrival — their migration pattern is off. Down goes another domino.

    The script from Schätzing, Steven Lally, Marissa Lestrade, Michael A. Walker, and Chris Lunt ably connects the dots as it jumps from continent to continent, but it holds off on revealing the full picture until the final breathtaking moments of the premiere. Its next stop is in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, where Charlie Wagner (Leonie Benesch), a student researcher at the fictional German Institute of Marine Biology, has been banished for being a maverick. While doing the oceanographic equivalent of busywork, she notices some aberrations in the tidal currents. Charlie jumps on a foreboding video conference call with the lead investigator back in Germany in between some flirty exchanges with male and female colleagues, and a one-night stand with a Scottish fisherman who takes exception with Charlie’s use of the term “overfishing.”

    Anyone of these arcs could anchor this story: the First Nations researcher who’s dedicated his life to ocean conservation, only to learn that humans may now be on the endangered list; the bisexual German PhD candidate who has to get answers, professional decorum be damned; even Italian scientist Alicia Delaware (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers), who is a fish out of water, has a lot to offer beyond her improbable name. (She tells a colleague she likes to think the state was named after her.) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; only one episode was made available for review, but the trailer promises much more bonkers action, along with some terrifying, “H.R. Giger-esque meets Red Lobster” imagery.

    “Episode 1” ends with what can only be described as a coordinated attack by a humpback whale and a pod of orcas, but Watson wisely takes a cue from Jaws — he knows concealing the carnage is just as effective at ratcheting up the terror as it is to go full-bore gore. As the orcas race toward the ship wreckage, they cut like sabers through the water, but they’re much more frightening when they vanish below the surface, pulling down some poor, unfortunate soul. If The Swarm can keep up this level of tension, it might lead to a viewing frenzy this fall. 

    New episodes of The Swarm air Tuesdays at 9:00 PM ET on The CW, and stream next-day on The CW app.

    Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.

    TOPICS: The Swarm, The CW, Elizabeth Kinnear, Frank Schätzing, Joshua Odjick, Leonie Benesch, Luke Watson, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers, Eco-Thrillers, Orcas