A New Species Has Evolved. Whatever They Become, The Destroy. Yesterday, They Became Human.
Following on from the festival and arthouse circuit success of his 1994 debut feature, Cronos, Mexican genre specialist Guillermo del Toro proceeded with his first English-language film, Mimic, in 1997. Thanks to massive interference from the studio the resulting work was not as the now-lauded director intended, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a look or two.
When a deadly disease carried by cockroaches decimates the children of New York City, entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) comes up with a novel solution: a genetically engineered ‘Judas breed’ insect that secretes an enzyme that speeds up the cockroaches’ metabolism to the point of death. The gambit works — job well done.
Except! Three years later, evidence beings to mount — and bodies begin to pile up — indicating that the Judas breed, which were designed to be unable to reproduce, have in fact survived in the bowels of NYC, and they’ve been breeding down there — breeding and evolving. So: giant, man-eating cockroaches in the sewers and subway tunnels of the Greatest City in the World. That sounds like a good time.
And it is, but the real fun with Mimic is metatextual — it’s in watching Guillermo del Toro’s artistic aesthetic and the commercial demands of Dimension Films smack into each other, with mixed but nonetheless interesting results. Watching the film now with the benefit of 20 years’ hindsight, it’s clear that while GDT wanted to make a creepy-crawly arthouse horror, Dimension honcho Bob (brother of Harvey) Weinstein required more safely commercial fare — while Miramax’s genre arm certainly put out some all-timers over the years, including the Scream series (1996-2011), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), The Crow (1994), and more, their bread and butter was safely scary multiplex fare for the teen crowd.
It’s clear that Weinstein won that fight. Del Toro, on only his second feature and his first English-language picture, didn’t have the clout or the control to captain the ship as effectively as he can now with a string of acclaimed films and a few statues under his belt, and so Mimic stands as a well-staged, beautifully shot — by DOP Dan Laustsen, who would go on to work with del Toro again on Crimson Peak (2015) and The Shape of Water (2017) — narratively generic monster flick.
It’s fun for what it is, though. For one thing, that’s a hell of a cast taking turns being chomped on. Sorvino aside, we get Jeremy Northam and Josh Brolin as Centre for Disease control investigators who get embroiled in the story; Giancarlo Giannini as a cobbler whose autistic grandson (Alexander Goodwin) twigs to what’s going on long before the neurotypicals get a clue; Charles S. Dutton as a pragmatic transit cop; F. Murray Abraham as Sorvino’s scientific mentor; and — this should come as no surprise to students of del Toro’s body of work — Doug Jones as a giant insect monster.
And that right there is Mimic’s chief appeal — the monsters are really cool. Basically giant roaches that have evolved protective camouflage that lets them pass for human at a distance or in dim light, they’re wonderfully realized beasties. They’re not shape-shifters, mind you — the conceit is that the shape of their carapace mimics (zing!) the general silhouette of the human form — up close their foreclaws, when placed together, look vaguely like a human face. But they are animals, not some supernatural threat, and they react to danger with brutal, insectile efficiency.
Mimic isn’t shy about killing off characters, and there are some pretty savage slayings over the course of the film — the most notorious of which shatters the unspoken ‘No Dead Kids’ rule most mainstream horror cleaves to. This adds a frisson of tension that is usually absent from this sort of thing — if the film doesn’t balk at slaughtering the young’uns, then anyone is potential roach-meat. Couple that with a remarkably effective visual aesthetic, all dripping pipes, slimy chitin, offset light and clinging goo, and what you have is a pretty effective little schlocker/ shocker.
Indeed, Mimic’s only real failing is that del Toro’s authorial voice is weaker here than in any of his other films, although it still manages to ring out loud in places. There is a director’s cut of Mimic available that purports to restore some of GDT’s intentions, but it doesn’t really add much to the proceedings — the original release cut, currently available to stream on Stan, pretty much tells the tale.
Mimic is very much the redheaded stepchild of the Guillermo del Toro filmography — a compromised film that is nonetheless still recognizably part of the director’s oeuvre. In point of fact, you could argue that Mimic’s existence is crucial to del Toro’s development as an artist. He found the experience of making the film so excruciating that he swore to stick to his guns going forward, never compromising his creative vision again. The quality of his subsequent work speaks to the results of that vow.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson