Bats (1999) -***
You might think one of The Deep Blue Sea would be enough for a single year, but apparently you’d be wrong. If you took the underlying premise of that movie, and mated it with the script for Arachnophobia, you’d end up with something very much like Bats, which hit the theaters scant weeks after The Deep Blue Sea, and then quickly vanished, audiences around the country having shunned it like a bad case of scabies.
Both movies have a spunky female scientist as one of the central characters, the major difference being that Bats’ Dr. Sheila Casper (Dina Meyer, from Starship Troopers and Johnny Mnemonic) is one of the good guys. One day, while she and her trusty sidekick, Jimmy Sands (played by the no-last-name-having Leon, for whom this movie represents a big step down from Colors), are poking around in a bat cave in Arizona, they are interrupted by a helicopter that lands not 200 feet away from them. Onboard the chopper are two more scientists, Dr. Tobe Hodge (Grosse Pointe Blank’s Carlos Jacott) from the Centers for Disease Control and Dr. Alexander McCabe (Bob Gunton, from Demolition Man and Dolores Claibourne, who I could have sworn was Robert Quarry when I first saw him) of undisclosed affiliation, who have some urgent business to discuss with Dr. Casper. Casper is widely known as one of the country’s foremost experts on bats (if you ask me, she looks a bit young to be the country’s foremost expert on anything), and thus it is to her that they have come with their problem. Last night, on the outskirts of Gallup, Texas, a pair of teenagers were cut to pieces, and their 1973 Pontiac Grand Prix destroyed by a swarm of bats.
Casper and Jimmy head off to Gallup with the two men, where they meet Sheriff Emmet Kimsey (the unfortunate Lou Diamond Phillips, who just can’t seem to get a part in anything better than The First Power or Supernova) and his deputy, Wesley Munn (the even more unfortunate David McConnell, from Troll 2). A look at the kids’ bodies confirms that their wounds were indeed inflicted by bats, but the picture the evidence paints seems impossible. For one thing, the size and shape of the bites points to a species of fruit bat popularly known as the flying fox, which is not only strictly herbivorous, but isn’t even found on the North American continent. Secondly, it’s quite clear that the bats would have to have been on a deliberate and concerted attack, in vast numbers, and with something approaching real strategy. Needless to say, bats don’t do this. Dr. McCabe, however, insists that these bats can do all this and more, which raises the important question, how the fuck would he know? What, did he make them, or something?
In a word, yes. Dr. McCabe’s been one busy little beaver for the past however long it’s been, using viruses to genetically engineer a breed of flying foxes that are bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, and much, much meaner than the standard model, and that will eat anything up to and including humans into the bargain. (And by the way, it really is possible to use viruses as tools for genetic engineering, though it doesn’t work quite the way screenwriter John Logan seems to think it does.) Then, in the proud B-movie tradition, his experimental creatures somehow got out, and are now in the process of spreading their mutation-causing virus throughout the bat population of Texas. When Casper and Jimmy ask him why in God’s name he would do such a ridiculous thing as breed a strain of killer fruit bats, he offers an explanation that you just have to admire for its sheer audacity: “I’m a scientist. That’s what we do. We make everything a little bit better.” Are you following me here? Do you realize what this means? This movie’s creators actually admit that they couldn’t think of any defensible reason for even a mad scientist to build these bats. What they may lack in talent, they certainly make up for in balls.
That night, Dr. McCabe’s pets come to town and basically destroy Gallup. They kill people by the score (including Deputy Munn and Dr. Hodge), wreck storefronts, cause traffic accidents, and generally wake up this sleepy Texas hickburg. The Proper Authorities arrive the next day, with a harebrained scheme to wipe out all the bat caves within a 100-mile radius with Hellfire missile airstrikes (never you mind that the Hellfire is a dedicated antitank weapon, and wouldn’t be terribly useful in the sort of basic demolition role being discussed here), a plan to which Dr. Casper takes great exception. In one of the wholly unexpected moments of clarity that occasionally emerge from the muddle of this script, she contends that the missiles’ detonation would only scatter the bats from their roosts without sealing them up or killing more than a few dozen of them, thereby making the problem many hundreds of times worse. But the Proper Authorities, being the Proper Authorities, are unwilling to listen, and insist upon going ahead with the bombing. That leaves Casper, Kimsey, Jimmy, and McCabe with only 48 hours in which to find the cave where the bats are living, and seal it up properly.
But before they can do any of that, they’re going to need a safe place to work. So our heroes trek on up to Gallup’s high school, which they proceed to fortify by lining every square inch of window with wire mesh, and then hooking that up to a portable generator with jumper cables. Computer wiz Jimmy then sets his laptop up using the school’s internet connection (internet connections in 1999 at a high school in a town where nobody drives a car less than ten years old?), and gets to work downloading satellite photos of the surrounding land. Eventually, Jimmy traces the bats to what Sheriff Kimsey says is an abandoned mine, but before they can make much use of this information, the sun sets and the bats return, laying predictable siege to the school. Then something really puzzling happens. McCabe starts babbling about how he can control the bats, and how he let them escape deliberately. Finally, the old coot disconnects the power to one of the fencing screens, and walks outside to demonstrate his control. The bats kill him immediately, of course, which is unfortunate, because now we’ll never learn what in the hell he was thinking when he set his bats free.
Meanwhile, the Proper Authorities, following instructions from Dr. Casper, have set up a giant refrigeration machine in the mine where the bats live. The idea is that bats hibernate in the winter, and thus extreme cold could be used to keep them in the roost for long enough to seal it off. But these are crap-movie soldiers, not crap-movie scientists, and they therefore make the stunningly idiotic mistake of conducting this operation at night, when the bats are out and about. Every single last one of the stupid fuckers is dead by the dawning of day three, and so there is no one to help Casper, Kimsey, and Jimmy when they arrive at the mine to finish the bats off. And more importantly, the Proper Authorities have now committed themselves to the idea that Casper’s sensible plan has failed, and are hell-bent on resorting to their original Hellfire missile strategy. The inevitable race against time ensues, with Casper and Kimsey searching the mine for the refrigeration machine, Jimmy standing by outside to dynamite the mine entrance, and stock footage of the Israeli air force streaking toward the mine, intent on fucking up everything. Just you guess how it all ends.
There’s a hilarious moment during the exploration of the mine in which Casper and Kimsey crash through a weak point in the floor, and find themselves standing chest-deep in a pit full of liquid guano. In many ways, that scene pretty much sums up the experience of watching Bats, but in other ways, this proves to be an unexpectedly entertaining movie. The opportunities for amusement at the film’s expense are myriad. Listen to Lou Diamond Phillips as he struggles to remember that he’s supposed to be speaking with a Texas accent, resulting in a drawl that fades in and out at random as if it were hooked up to some kind of phase-shift device. Thrill to the camera’s insistent lingering over ill-advised close-ups on the effects team’s surprisingly old-school (that is to say, shitty) rubber bats. Gaze in awe at the sheer amount of faux sweat in which the makeup department manages to drench Dina Meyer. Hold onto your seats as the hilarity grips you each and every time Bob Gunton’s Dr. McCabe opens his mouth to say anything! In the end, it’s not quite as much fun as The Deep Blue Sea, but it doesn’t fall all that far short. And besides, Bats is performing a necessary public service— just imagine how many impressionable youngsters will be motivated to apply themselves in science class now that they know that making genetically enhanced, man-eating monsters is “what [scientists] do!”