Friday, March 25, 2011

del Toro Time: Mimic

Mimic (1997, Guillermo del Toro)

Many internationally acclaimed directors have been tempted by fame and the grandiose stature of Hollywood. Some even made attempts at trying their craft within the legendary studio system. Alas, as talented, original and creative as some of these minds may have been, most discovered that the greener pastures were in fact back home, or at least not in Hollywood. Unlike most, Guillermo del Toro has succeeded where others have failed in trying to produce work that truly resonated with mainstream audiences in North America. One need only think of Blade II and the Hellboy franchise. What one needs to understand is that those successes were attained during the director’s second stint in Hollywood. The movie he made during his first séjour was Mimic. After watching that movie, it was clear to me why he opted to return to Spanish-language cinema as well as more creative control with The Devil’s Backbone.

New York city children are dying of a terrible and highly persistent illness carried and spread by the city’s legions of cockroaches. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino), an entomologist called in to offer her expertise in the fight against this most infamous of bugs, helps a crack team of scientists develop a new breed of insect, the Judas bug, which secretes a special poison, thus eradicating hundreds of thousands of roaches. The Judas was biologically engineered to live only a few months long to avoid any unwanted problems, the kids are healthy again, Susan lives happily with her husband Peter (Jeremy Northam), another scientist. Thank you and good night.

Not so. The Judas bug somehow out-lived the defined cycle its progenitors programmed, and three years after the infamous cockroach disease, a new infestation has begun down in the Manhattan sewage system. At around the same time Susan is brought a new type of insect by two young youths from the street who visit her sometimes, a number of bizarre murders and disappearances are being reported. It is not before long that Susan and Peter understand that their pet project has come back, only now they are bigger, hungrier and have a liking for theatrics, as their physical mutation gifts them with the ability to somewhat take on the shape of human beings!

If the Hellboy films demonstrated the wonderful work del Toro is capable of working within Hollywood when equipped with adequate tools (solid scripts, solid budget, respectable degree of creative freedom), then Mimic is the exact opposite. One should not forget that at this stage, del Toro is still young and has some ways ahead of him before his Pan’s Labyrinth glory days. Cronos was proof that something special was brewing with this Mexican filmmaker, but that was entirely del Toro. Mimic is the result of Miramax calling, which is not the same thing. On the surface Mimic has numerous of the qualities del Toro gushes over in storytelling: a unique story arc, special set designs and lots of prosthetics and special effects because it has plenty of gooey creatures. But that is essentially where the del Toro signatures end, even those do not end up playing terribly well in the film. Take the creature design for example. In the movie’s first third, the ‘mimicking’ creatures are seen mostly in shadow or as silhouettes, with occasional glances at their full shape when attempting to replicate human form. Fair enough, the filmmakers which to only tease the viewer with dark and blurry visions, reserving the real surprises for later on. However, rather than get more interesting and provocative, the creatures grow more tiresome and uninspired. Prior to watching Mimic (this was a first time viewing) I would not have believed it possible to consider any del Toro movie and conclude that the monsters, a del Toro trademark, were dull and ugly, yet that is precisely the case here. They sort of resemble cockroaches but with wings. And big. Okay. Also, pardon the author for falling prey to a lazy criticism, but the visual effects employed to bring the monsters to ‘life’ look dated, but not in the original Tron-like charming sense of the term. I took a few moments once the film was over to think back at some films from the 90s that also insisted on using computer imagery to render fantastical beings and it did not take long to think of examples where the CG creations looked sharper and unquestionably more convincing than the Judas bugs do in Mimic. The ‘smaller budget’ argument can only forgive so much. This movie takes itself very seriously, so the presence of embarrassingly sub-par visuals whose purpose is to produce terror simply will not do. It was equally difficult to buy into the notion that the Judas insects were mimicking humans. They did not look anything like humans. Far taller, very thin, and the pseudo mask used to replicate that facial textures and humans looked more like, well, a mask. I suppose the bugs can sneak up on a few people in a dark ally or two, which they do here, but take over the world? I hardly think so. 

The film’s cast is not up to the task of hopefully elevating the material and in some cases even handling the exact nature of the material they were dealt with. With the exceptions of Charles S. Dutton, playing a cop who ventures into the underground railway system with the protagonists, and Giancarlo Giannini, a shoe shiner dragged into the ordeal via a terribly forced sub-plot, the actors are mostly dull. Bless her father, Mira Sorvino is not much of a leading lady, least of all for a horror film in which she pretends to be an entomologist. It is a flat performance, one that has precious few inspiring moments. The dialogue she has to utter provides little assistance, but an actor still needs to bring his or her own weight to a performance regardless of what a script might require them to do. Speaking of uninspired, Jeremy Northam anyone? I love watching actors at work, be they seasoned veterans or newcomers to the art. Readers know that I rarely get cranky and overly negative about a film or one of its many aspects…unless it really irks me. Well, Northam got that down pat. What an awful performance. ‘Stilted’ is the most accurate term which springs to mind. And to think that this man is playing the romantic lead. Josh Brolin has, inexplicably, a small role as a detective, but since the film does not get much right, I guess it makes sense that he dies a cheap death halfway through.

Unlike with the stories of many other del Toro films, what one sees in Mimic is what one gets. There are some exchanges pertaining to evolution, more specifically about how the biological mutation of the Judas bugs has enabled the hive to fight against its greatest predator, Man, by camouflaging itself as said predator. Most of it feels superficial and serves as exposition time to give the viewer a half-backed reason as to why all of this is even happening. The remainder of the movie is saddled with some of the oldest horror movie clichés in the manual, the irritating being the type of scene when the movie tries to fool the viewer into believing something evil is lurking in a specific location, only to reveal that it’s a homeless hobo. The lone part that elicited any sort of thrill was one an adult Judas bug rips itself into two parts between subway train doors in order to reach the protagonists who have hidden inside. That did indeed feel like a little bit of del Toro flare was at work, but it only lasted a few moments. What’s more, only minutes later does the movie pull a tired ‘it’s dead…not it’s not!!!’ stunt on the viewer. Ugh.

That seems to be all there is to write about Mimic. Has anything been left out? Oh, well there is a token cutesy child character whose foolish ways gets adults killed (but not really cute, it is just the movie adamantly insisting that, yes, the child is cute), on over-bearing score, and an opening credit sequence that feels like a rip off from Se7en, a film released only two years earlier. The real crime is that del Toro’s name is forever attached to the project. What is done is done. For what it is worth, the director has since been public about his displeasure with the movie.


Anonymous said...

This one fails to satisfy one almost every front. The idea of the creatures are interesting, but like you said they're rather dull to look at. I wish he had played more with them and crafted something more visually compelling.

I did like seeing my man Charles S. Dutton and it did have some good monster movie moments, but it was never more than a mediocre monster flick.

edgarchaput said...

@cinemasights: The opening credits say it's a del Toro film, but it really isn't. del Toro himself has admitted to not liking the film, so that in of itself is very telling.

Fallon said...

I just watched Mimic again on Netflix. It was much more entertainingn than I remember. The atmosphere is what counts in this movie, dark, dank, hopeless. The bugs are pure del Toro, meaning, forget the shaky execution, they are a marvelous, creepy set of nightmarish things. This movie is also the natural follow-up to del Toro's Cronos. In fact, look for the great scene when Sorvino is stabbed in the hand by the monster bug brought to her by the street kids. It's an identical scene from Cronos when the old man is stabbed by the scarab bug that will curse him with immortality. The movie is not perfect, but few are. Del Toro captured the nightmare that crawls under our feet's his specialty. I do not understand why he rejects it.