Written by: Donald A. Wollheim (short story), Matthew Robbins & Guillermo del Toro (screenplay)
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, and Giancarlo Giannini
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Evolution has a way of keeping things alive."
Hollywood lore is lined with stories featuring promising foreign directors who come to America only to get ground up by the machine. Believe it or not, Guillermo del Toro almost starred in such a cautionary tale. His Hollywood debut was anything but auspicious: after the rousing success of Cronos, Harvey Weinstein lured the Mexican filmmaker to the Dimension stable and promptly stuck him on a giant bug flick. Such an assignment might have been beneath some filmmakers, but we know that del Toro loves his monsters, so it’s no wonder that Mimic turned out to be pretty solid. It might be a late-90s Dimension-flavored Aliens rip-off, but I imagine it’s the best late-90s Dimension-flavored Aliens rip-off it could possibly be, especially in light of Weinstein’s notorious meddling on set.
There’s even the soul of a del Toro movie lurking beneath the surface, desperately itching to crawl out of the husk of an otherwise rote script. At some point in the future, a devastating disease threatens to wipe out Manhattan’s child population, but it’s thwarted by etymologist Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino), who introduces the Judas Breed, a genetically engineered superbug, into the city’s cockroach population. Three years later, the crisis has subsided and del Toro’s voice starts to peep through: one night, a kid named Chuy (Alexander Goodwin) peers outside of his window and witnesses the mysterious death of a priest, who is dragged away by an shrouded figure that vaguely resembles a man but clicks like a cicada. This marks the beginning of an outbreak of similar deaths and disappearances alongside the emergence of a mutated strain of the Judas Breed that’s evolved exponentially during the past few years.
In the past, del Toro has been vocal about his disapproval of Mimic, going so far as to claim that only a small part of the movie is his. The setup, which features many of his preoccupations (childhood trauma, ineffectual religious figures, insects, especially bears his mark. Chuy’s experience especially captures that peculiar mix of childhood awe and terror that’s defined much of the director’s work over the years, and it feels like Mimic should be framed as his story. He’s a possibly autistic child who lives with his father (Giancarlo Giannini), a dignified shoe-shiner, but the film doesn’t do much to illuminate their lives; instead, it paints them in broad strokes and leans in on Chuy’s odd tic that allows him to key in on people’s shoes and memorize them. As such, he becomes obsessed with finding “Mr. Funny Shoes,” the mysterious figure he saw outside of his window.
That’s the setup for another dark fairy tale in the classic del Toro mode, but it never quite gets there since Chuy has to split time with Susan’s story, which is ripe with its own thematic subtexts that never fully bear fruit: she and her husband (Jeremy Northram) haven’t been able to conceive a child of their own (after artificially conceiving an entire army of superbugs, mind you), and you can faintly feel the mechanizations rumbling to connect it with Chuy’s eventual plight. Thematically, Mimic eventually loses its way, though: Chuy is dragged off into an abandoned subway system by the bugs, while everyone else eventually finds their way down there. Susan is drawn in by her own investigation (also aided by a couple of street urchins who bring her weird bug samples and such), while her husband and his CDC partner (a baby-faced Josh Brolin!) also enter the tunnels in an effort to uncover the mystery of what they truly unleashed three years earlier.
At that point, Mimic becomes a bug movie, albeit an exquisite one that’s varnished with painterly compositions and expertly wrought with suspense. Again, del Toro’s affinity for this stuff is well-known; like Tarantino and his ilk, he’s a guy that’s always been effusive about his influences, and Mimic proves that this sort of thing is embedded in his DNA. He and longtime collaborator Guillermo Navarro stage some effective jolts and take advantage of an incredibly effective location that was begging to house a horror flick. The movie’s only 16 years old, and its style weirdly seems fresh and ancient all at once; Navarro’s sheen has kept it well-preserved (it looks like he could have shot it yesterday), but it’s so measured and downright coherent that it feels like a relic from a time where filmmakers didn’t just rely on frenzied camerawork to create a sense of faux-disorientation and chaos. Mimic’s just built on good old fashioned suspense, eerie imagery, and a cool hook with the Judas Breed, a creature that has managed to ape its most formidable predator (hence the title).
Even that’s a little undercooked, though, which is symptomatic of Mimic as a whole. The behind-the-scenes issue provide an explanation and perhaps even an excuse, but the final product is still uneven and a bit bloated considering the thin premise (most of the second half is really a bug movie-cum-slasher where the survivors are picked off one-by-one). Interestingly enough, the film was initially conceived as a 30 minute short that would be a part of a triptych, so it’s a bit surprising that it somehow stretched itself out into a 110+ minute feature. Very little is out of place during that time, though—del Toro’s never directed a film that isn't technically spectacular, and Mimic features top-notch creature designs (del Toro's imagination also never disappoints when it's conjuring up monsters), gooey, splattery effects, and solid performances from veterans (F. Murray Abraham has a bit role as Sorvino’s mentor) and contemporary stars. Looking back at the roster is another reminder that the 90s were a long time ago; somehow Josh Brolin plays like 5th fiddle to the likes of Sorvino, Northam, Charles Dutton, and Alix Koromzay (another typical all-star cast from Dimension, really—if nothing else, the Weinsteins always knew the value of a strong cast and never hesitated to plaster their floating heads on a poster).
Like other del Toro films, it’s also beautiful and spooky all at once, and its director's heart faintly beats in the distance. That's a problem I’ve often found with his American films, all of which are riotously entertaining but have left me slightly cold. Likewise, Mimic never bores and looks spectacular, so it works from a fetishistic standpoint. If del Toro’s aim was to live up to the film’s title, he succeeded because Mimic looks, acts, and feels like everything a creature feature should be—it’s just lacking a fully formed thematic soul to elevate it above those trappings, which is perhaps what we expect from him these days. He was certainly disappointed in it himself and attempted to patch it up a couple of years back with a director’s cut that adds six minutes to the runtime to highlight some more character stuff.
The result is a minor improvement at best, but the extras found on the Blu-ray make for a comprehensive look at a film that was clearly a personal failure for its director. Over the course of several special features, del Toro doesn’t shy away from it, nor does he seem particularly ashamed of it anymore, and it’s always refreshing to see anyone with this type of candor and class (he takes the blame for the film's failings despite Dimension's infamous handling of it). Mimic is certainly a fascinating film—even though it doesn’t quite work, it’s an oddly elegant riff on a B-movie staple that separates itself from its more anonymous contemporaries. As always, beware the retroactive powers of the auteur theory, but Mimic is the work of a born filmmaker desperately trying to break loose from Hollywood’s shackles. Del Toro managed to wring himself loose, if only just barely. Buy it!
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