Directed and co-written by Guillermo Del Toro, whose debut, Cronos, hit the festival circuit a few years ago, Mimic is, like Cronos, a textbook example of the art-horror film. With few exceptions, the art-horror film is a Judas breed of its own, though the only ground it infests is specialty theaters. In art horror, or AH, the characters act as silly as they do in plain old horror--let's call that noble form OH--except they do it with angst instead of esprit. In AH, the "Boo!" effects are as dependent as they are in OH on sudden jolts of sound or mysterious forms lunging from shadows, but they're draped and muffled with symbols and metaphors. And the narrative hooks used to snag our attention are just as hokey, except in AH (unlike OH) they rarely get fulfilled. In Mimic, Dr. Tyler goes from taking a home pregnancy test to tracking the breed's sole male; the species' future depends on his virility. You wait in vain for some Rosemary's Baby action to develop--especially since the insects are "mimicking" the human form. Instead she just acts motherly toward an autistic boy.
An autistic boy? Yes, well, the AH factor goes off the charts with the appearance of a wet-eyed young idiot savant, who not only can name a shoe's type and size on sight but can also play spoons in a way that imitates the deadly insects' clicking sounds. He somehow bonds with the chief insect scout, dubbing him "Mister Funny Shoes." The film's most campy and thus most amiable moment comes when the kid's Gepetto-like father, a subway shoeshine man with a fresh-from-Italia accent played by Giancarlo Giannini, realizes that "Meestah Funny Shoezzz" has kidnapped his son. The two stories finally connect when the shoeshine man collides with the scientists in the tunnels beneath Manhattan. You may hope that the eight-year-old will turn out to be as surprisingly cunning as the doctors are surpassingly dumb. No such luck. He's aghast when Mister Funny Shoes has his dad as an hors d'oeuvre.
Mimic will attract the unwary because of its alien-autopsy allure. The mixture of pathology and exotic shocks is an inexhaustible attraction in contemporary pop culture. It's no coincidence that graphic medical soap operas like Chicago Hope and ER and serial-killer shows like Profiler and Millennium and paranormal series like The X-Files took off at the same time. Mash them together while channel-flipping and they become the mainstream version of the cyborg and hybrid phantasmagorias of "avant-garde" sci-fi. In the last week I've watched, in quick succession, the two Tetsuo man-machine gorefests and Del Toro's Cronos, which features an eternal insect inside an archaic machine that turns men into vampires. I feel like my brain needs a lube job. But some audiences can't get enough of humans, nonhumans and engines being torn apart and recombined in kinky-scary or decadent "aesthetic" fashions--gross-out takeoffs on millennial transformation. The junior-high point of Mimic comes when Dr. Tyler smears Judas guck over her friends to make the insects think the exterminators are part of the colony. What a concept: insect repellent extracted from insects. Will Jack in the Box get the tie-in rights, or Raid?
From its insect monsters to its underground conflagrations, Mimic resembles the 1954 sci-fi film Them!, about giant mutated ants emerging from the sands beneath atomic test sites in New Mexico. But Them! was swift, unassuming and logical, unfolding its central mystery in the first half-hour and spending the next hour on adventure and suspense. Mimic is static, highhanded, and confused, wasting most of its 105-minute running time simply on spelling out the premise. Even at the climax, the filmmakers can't decide what they're trying to say: Is it Us vs. Them? Or Them "R" Us? After all, Dr. Tyler, a veritable Baroness von Frankenstein, is as fiercely ambitious as the creatures she engineered.
Mira Sorvino plays the role with a monotonous intensity that made me think of middle-period Liv Ullmann. Then I read she'd wanted to be the female Harrison Ford. Giancarlo Giannini at least looks colorful against the likes of Jeremy Northam (Dr. Tyler's husband) and Josh Brolin (his assistant); Charles S. Dutton brings an apt derisive air to the role of the transit cop. But Del Toro's handling of the cast is witless. Why push F. Murray Abraham into smarmy close-ups as Dr. Tyler's mentor if he's not going to become an insect in disguise?
Unlike the sci-fi-horror flicks of the '50s, movies like Mimic are overly self-conscious about their visual design and completely unconscious of the possibilities for entertainment. The radioactive ants in Them! look pretty silly today, but at least you could see Them. Del Toro is so devoted to gothic shadows in Mimic that he never gives you a full, satisfying gawk at his amazing flying Judases. (Alert to Mayor Giuliani: One previewgoer remarked, "New York is really dark!") If there was a kick to having nasty bugs upset the status quo in '50s America, in the '90s they come off as a predictable outgrowth of our everyday chaos. They're not haunting Creatures of the Id; they're disposable Creatures of the "Ick!"
Written by Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, from a story by Donald A. Wolheim. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. With Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam.