We are living in the Age of the Anthropocene. To put it simply, we are living at a point in the geological timeline where the activities of human beings are starkly altering the face of the earth—the effects are being observed in the atmosphere, in the way living organisms maintain the nutrients cycle, and obviously in the ocean. Landmasses occupy only one-fourth of the total surface area of the earth; the rest, 75%, is home to aquatic life. As the wheel of civilization progressed, we somehow forgot how significant our oceans are. “The Swarm” is a wake-up call, reminding us that if the ocean dies, we all will eventually die. Life is all about balance, and the ecological balance in this Anthropocene epoch is lost. We have converted the oceans into massive dumps, draining an astronomical quantity of pollutants like plastics, pesticides, and other toxins.
In the recent past, around the 1970s and 80s, ecocriticism emerged as a new branch of literary theory. The cinematic medium has always been very closely related to literature. So, by default, the literary conversations around ecocriticism gradually crept into the cinematic language. In today’s world, the film is the easiest medium for spreading information to the masses because, let’s be honest, we have lost our habit of reading. Therefore, films that present an ecological discourse are no longer a rarity. We have long been having this conversation about saving our environment, and this conversation has been intense enough that this reality has become a part of our lives. Every day we are trying to move a little closer to living a life with greater sustainability. Some of us now prefer to consume our soft drinks out of tin cans rather than buying PET bottles; we are now opting for sustainable clothes made out of cotton rather than falling into the trap of fast fashion brands; we have even switched from regular toothbrushes to bamboo ones. But the question is: are our efforts enough?
In the wake of environmental activism, shows and films about saving nature have gained a lot of momentum. Today’s mature viewer wants to watch shows that are going to increase their scientific knowledge. Entertainment is no longer restricted to brainless revelry; rather, audiences are now prepared enough to devote their leisure time in contemplating serious issues like the health of the oceans and ecological balance. The HBO series “Chernobyl” and the recent eyeball grabber “The Last of Us” are testimonials of the above-mentioned paradigmatic shift in viewership pattern. “The Swarm” is the latest addition to the list of television series that are trying to raise awareness and ignite the discussion about environmental concerns. “The Swarm” is apparently the most expensive television program to be produced in Germany. It has been adapted from the 2004 German novel “Der Schwarm” by Frank Schatzing. “The Swarm” is categorized as a sci-fi thriller that apparently takes us into the future, where an unknown living being that resides in the depths of the ocean launches attacks on human beings across the face of the earth, pointing out the true powerlessness of mankind.
The most interesting thing to be noted is that the plot might not necessarily be read as a prophecy for a distant future but as a real phenomenon of presence. The melting of the polar ice caps due to global warming, the rising water levels, the depletion of marine populations across various species, the increase in the number of storms across the globe, and the submergence of wetlands in the Sundarbans and Carolina are warnings that the oceans have been giving us. One of the producers on “Game of Thrones,” Frank Doelger, translates the epic spectacle of that series to this real-life ecological thriller that gives us ample space to consider “The Swarm” as a modern-day horror story.
One of the appreciable things about “The Swarm” is that it knows its locale. The European states and the West often have the audacity to blame the countries belonging to the global south for the increase in the rate of oceanic pollution. You shall often find schoolchildren from Norway paying up their pocket money to clean some bodies of water in Asia and Africa. These private grants force local governments to often take extreme actions against the people who are residing in areas adjacent to the ecological hotspots (just like it happened on an island called Morichjhapi, in the Sundarbans, in 1979; there are not many government records available), while Europe and the West can stay aloof, believing that they have done their best. “The Swarm” tries to solve the worldwide problem by sticking to their surrounding seas and oceans. Although the Europeans have the attitude of them being the superior race and therefore capable of saving the entire world (just like the ‘white man’s burden’) But the pacy, highly informative screenplay of the series, with everything and everywhere happening all at once, will probably not allow you to look at the incidents with a postcolonial lens. Having said that, the entire series is binge-worthy, and it will make your brain work like it does in a detective series, only that the detectives here are a bunch of scientists trying to save the world from a malicious ocean that is taking revenge on mankind for the horrible treatment the human race has given it for so long.
Even though the actions take place in water bodies around Europe, the show begins in Peru with a shocking visual of a fisherman being pulled down into the depths of the Pacific by an unknown and dangerous force residing near the bed of the ocean. This scary epilogue to the show sets up the tone for what is to follow. We are then transported to a small island off the northern coast of Scotland. There is an observation station for the marine biologist, and Charlie Wagner (played by Leonie Benesch) is in charge of it. During her initial interactions with her colleague and her faculty advisor, Professor Lehmann (Barbara Sukowa), we understand that Charlie is a bit of a rebel and that her isolated posting is some sort of punishment that she is serving. While trying to pick up some malfunctioning signaling equipment from the Sea, Charlie for the first time encounters her fear of drowning. Her colleagues Jess and Tomas pay her a visit with a new signaling device. Little did she know then that this would be the last time she would see them alive. They were supposed to be deployed on the mission of monitoring data in the Arctic Ocean.
That very night, Charlie meets a young fisherman in a local pub, and they develop a tender bond. While launching the equipment the next morning, Charlie comes across chunks of methyl hydrate that have broken away from the base of the ocean over a vast stretch of water. She sends a video of this strange occurrence to her colleagues at the Norwegian Marine Institute. The plot then takes us to the Western coast of Canada, where Leon Anawak (played by Joshua Odjick), a cetologist and a Ph.D. student at the Vancouver Marine Institute, is eagerly waiting for the whales to return. Alicia Delaware (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers), a fellow student at the institute, points out that the whales have never been this late to reach the coast of Canada in their migration route. Then, to everyone’s surprise, a dead orca washes up to the shore, indicating to the biologists that the first whale of the season is a dead one. After an initial investigation, it was found that the orca had been killed after it attacked a local fishing boat that belonged to people in Leon’s community. This strange behavior of the usually shy and stunning orcas is very concerning for the scientists at the institute.
Meanwhile, off the coast of Norway, an energy harvesting company finds something unusual happening at the bed of the Sea. For some expert opinion, Tina Lund (Krista Krosnen) calls Dr. Sigur Johansson (Alexander Karim), who points out they might have discovered a new species of sea worm. On further investigation, it was also found that they had come across a new species of bacteria that these worms feed on. As exciting as it sounds, this meant that Hovelstead, the Norwegian company that surveyed local seas for minerals and gas, would not be able to undertake excavation unless it was proven that the same species of worms had been discovered in other regions of the world. On the other side of the world, the whales do return to the northern Pacific coast. It is a delight for the whale watchers, and the tourists are seen rejoicing about the news. Leon’s friend Lizzie is a guide on such a whale-watching boat. The orcas are back, and so are the humpback whales. But when the humpback whale attacked the boat, breaking it into two halves; it capsized, and simultaneously, a school of orcas feasted on most of the people who were on board. The loss of his friend Lizzie and the irregular behavior of the whales leave Leon perturbed, and he visits the Vancouver port, where a large ship belonging to the Japanese Mifune Foundation had reported being attacked by a couple of humpback whales, who had also destroyed the assisting tug boats. Leon notices that the keel of the ship has a thick population of mussels growing on it. He gathers samples of mussels, believing that they might have contributed to the immobility of the ship and that they might have attached themselves on to the ship back in Tokyo. Leon decides that he will conduct an autopsy on the whale himself. Moreover, Alicia observes a strange white fluid coming out of the mussels. Leon also finds some white substances growing inside the whale’s brainstem. When they compared the two specimens, they found over 100 similar compounds in the two specimens. They pointed out that there must be some active mutations appearing in marine life, and they are not restricted to probably the west Pacific Coast but can also be seen around Japan.
On further research, it was discovered that the same mutated mussels were also found in the inland lakes of Africa. Dr. Johanson meets up with the executives from the Mifune Foundation Riku Sota to find out whether they had discovered any worms like the ones Lund and her team had come across in the Norwegian Sea. The Mifune Foundation later revealed that they had. But Hovelstead, before getting any confirmation from them, had installed pipelines in the area where they had first discovered the worms without informing Tina or Dr. Johanson. Tina resigns from the company. Meanwhile, in the coastal towns of France, there is a waterborne disease that has been taking lives. It began when the chef at a local restaurant died after handling a lobster that was secreting the same mucus that we had seen coming out of the specimen Leon had collected from the keel of the ship. Dr. Cecile Roche (played by Cecile de France) discovers that it is a viral infection that is growing among crustaceans. In the course of the entire series, we see strange mutations happening in marine animals, whether they are millions of jellyfish moving into the canals of Venice or deep-sea albino crabs rushing out of the seas in South Africa, Mumbai, and other South Asian Seas to attack the coastal population. The Sea is seemingly sending messages to the people staying on the coast, asking them to move inland. In fact, a rare tsunami destroyed the coastal towns in northern Norway. Prior to this, the Juno, which had been conducting some survey experiments in the Arctic Ocean, had capsized, killing Charlie’s friend. She observed that in the last video that Jess had sent her, there was a strange sort of bioluminescence happening outside the windows of the ship. Charlie concludes that this strange incident must be related to the rise in temperature in specific regions of the ocean where there are dormant methane volcanoes present. She believes that they might have gotten active, which is what caused the Juno to sink. The same kind of bioluminescence is observed in the Pacific Ocean at great depths by Leon and his team.
The Mifune Foundation opens a channel of interaction and brings together a group of scientists who are hell-bent on finding what is causing such rapid mutations in marine life. They come up with the idea that there is a malicious ocean spirit-like entity present in the waters and that its headquarters are mainly in the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans. They call it the ‘YRR,” which is a single-cell organism that can become one with the cells of the organism they enter. The ‘YRR’ is talking back to mankind in the same language of abuse that we have used to speak to the ocean for so long. We see the devotion of a bunch of scientists and the economic backing of a business tycoon, who gave up their family lives to save the rest of the planet. The ending is beautiful, heroic, and commendable, showcasing Charlie as a hero as she discerns the ‘YRR’ not as a harmful force but as a nurturing force of nature and an ancestor of Homo sapiens (we all come from the ocean, as we studied in the chapter on evolution in biology). The last stunning visual of Charlie’s mermaid-like figure washing up on the charcoal beaches of Iceland leaves room for a “The Swarm” Season 2 where we perhaps are going to see the group of our international scientists finally garnering victory over the malevolent ocean spirit ‘YRR’ and reestablishing that we still live in the Age of the Anthropocene, but now we are a little more concerned than ever about our environment, our air, our oceans and the Nature. “The Swarm” is streaming on Hulu.