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Entries in Mimic [1997] (1)

Wednesday
Oct052011

Mimic (1997)

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I can't imagine I would've had anything positive to say about Mimic had I seen it on initial release. As it stands, I can only praise the universe for having granted me the distance and experience to see Guillermo del Toro's first American picture for what it is: a combination time capsule/work-for-hire genre film remarkable only for being gorgeously unremarkable.

From the opening credits, it's apparent that Mimic came out in the post-Se7en era. Jittery names and titles come in and out of focus against a montage of entomological paraphernalia, accompanied by a suitably hip, dark score--del Toro swaps in exoskeletons where David Fincher fetishized human limbs.

We jump to a gloomy New York City, where a cockroach-transmitted disease has infected almost every child in Manhattan. Scientist couple Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) and Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam) have genetically modified a super-bug that, once dropped into the roach population, secretes a foamy poison. Within months, all of the island's six-legged vermin is wiped out, and the doctors are celebrated as heroes.

Fast-forward three years later. Stories of strange insect-like creatures and bizarre disappearances pop up all over the city. Susan and Peter discover that their bug, which had been designed to die out after six months, continued spawning in secret, evolving into a new species of creature that--over time--takes on the characteristics of its prey. In other words, New York is now a breeding ground for nine-foot-tall cockroaches that can look like human beings!

Sort of.

Mimic's premise is also its broken promise. There's one scene--the introduction of the man-bugs--that comes close to delivering what audiences likely expected when plopping down their money. While waiting on a subway platform, Susan encounters a giant, shadowy figure that looks, from a distance, like a dirty homeless guy; turns out his "trench coat" is really a set of folded-down wings, which mask a grotesque, overgrown thorax and hairy insect legs.

That's cool and all, but the scientists spend a lot of time freaking out about the bugs' ability to destroy our population by blending in and then devouring us whole--when the reality is that you can spot these things from a mile away. Their true faces are shielded behind gray, melted-wax approximations that split down the middle, but you'd have to be absolutely blotto to think these dripping, hissing monoliths might casually stand behind you in a Starbucks one day.

On top of that, the "passing for human" bit is used precisely once in this movie as a main story point. The rest of the time, the creatures look like various species of giant, slimy bugs. After about the forty-minute mark, Mimic ceases being Se7en and becomes a dull-cop-procedural version of the first three Alien films.

Lest you think that's harsh, allow me to demonstrate:

  • A father (Giancarlo Giannini) searches for his son (Alexander Goodwin) in the sewers. On finding him hiding behind some garbage, he leans down to encourage him to come out. The boy looks over his dad's shoulder in surprise, and an impossibly tall monster snatches the old man, tearing him apart in mid-air.
  • Later, after Susan has blown up the bugs' nest, she faces off against the lead cockroach. The alpha bug turns its attention towards the boy, and Susan runs towards them screaming, "Get away from him!"
  • Charles S. Dutton shows up as a beat cop who finds himself trapped beneath the city with the rest of our heroes. Ahead of the climactic battle, he acts as a human distraction for the monsters, venturing out into the abandoned subway while Susan makes her escape. He dies screaming as an overgrown insect pounces on him, ripping his chest open (having perfected this exact sequence of events in Alien 3, this must have seemed an easy paycheck for Dutton).

I could go on about the many of goo-on-boots scenes, or the part where Peter heads into a series of shafts and winds up sitting right next to one of the creatures, but if you've seen the wildly popular sci-fi series from which del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins have so blatantly stolen, then you'll have picked up on these cues after my first example. The key difference between this movie and that franchise is that I could actually see what was going on in the Alien films. The lighting and editing* is so poor here that I had trouble making out key actions scenes, even on a high-def monitor.

What's amazing to me about Mimic is that there's hardly a sign of del Toro's signature blend of quirky horror and fantasy anywhere in this picture. It's as if a studio executive had watched the director's Spanish-language films and thought, "This guy can hold a camera, and we can probably get him for cheap. Let's make a knock-off!" I assume it was Mimic's modest profitability that allowed del Toro to make a name in the studio system, weaving  his sensibilities into Blade 2 and cementing his visionary status with Hellboy and the upscale Best Foreign-Language nominee, Pan's Labyrinth. But anyone could have directed Mimic, and while it was likely fun for everyone involved to make, it's a chore to watch at just under two hours.

But maybe I'm simply overlooking Mimic's meta-genius. Maybe del Toro purposefully made a generic gross-out thriller in the hopes that he'd be allowed entree into the Hollywood studio system. Like the modified cockroach of his story, he blended in with the millions of identical vermin, eventually blowing everyone's minds and dominating the industry.

Again, that's hindsight and speculation. More likely, his master plan was just to get paid.

It shows.

*The editor on this film, Patrick Lussier, would go on to direct a number of crazy, inventive (but not necessarily successful films), such as My Bloody Valentine 3D and Drive Angry 3D.