Monday, August 17, 2015

Mimic (1997)

Director: Guillermo del Toro                             Writers: Matthew Robbins & Guillermo del Toro
Film Score: Marco Beltrami                              Cinematography: Dan Lausten
Starring: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, F. Murray Abraham and Josh Brolin

Despite its lack of critical success, Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi horror film Mimic has a lot of positive things going for it, and a cult following even inspired the studio to produce two more direct-to-video entries in the franchise without him. What he has created in this first film in the series, however, is a genuine throwback to seventies horror film, complete with color manipulation to give the images the warm feel of the film stock from that period, as well as a brilliant production design by Carol Spier that gives the sets a timeless quality, making the movie feel as if it could be set at any time in the later half of the twentieth century. The screenplay was, in fact, based on the story of the same name by fifties sci-fi author Donald A. Wollheim and deals with genetic manipulation gone wrong. The film was originally planned as one in a series of short films that would be shown together, but the project was eventually undertaken as a feature. And while it was released before del Toro had approved of the final cut, a few years later he went back and re-cut the film, which was released on DVD in 2011 as the director’s cut.

The film begins with an outbreak of a deadly disease in New York City that is attacking children. None of the usual remedies work, however, when they try to come up with a cure or a vaccine. So the medical community decides to go after the carrier: the common cockroach. CDC physician Jeremy Northam takes research entomologist Mira Sorvino through the clinic in order to convince her of what needs to be done, and she develops what is called the Judas Breed, a genetically engineered roach that, once it breeds, produces only sterile roaches. When the population eventually dies out the cases of the outbreak dwindle to nothing. Fast forward three years and Northam and Sorvino are married. Sorvino’s buying exotic bugs from two kids who haunt the subways. Then they find a live specimen of a juvenile Judas roach, and since they can’t technically reproduce she begins to panic over what that could mean. Her mentor, F. Murray Abraham, calls her bug Frankenstein and tells her that the world is a much different place than the lab where all of them died. At the same time a bug-man is haunting the streets of New York, killing and taking the bodies underground to his lair. Josh Brolin is the uncouth CDC inspector who works with Northam on the case.

The only witness to the bug man’s crimes is a savant child, Alexander Goodwin, who can mimic the sound of the bug man with a set of spoons. Halfway through the film del Toro sets up for the climax in three ways. First, Northam and Brolin investigate the subway tunnels with policeman Charles Dutton to look for more examples of the juvenile Judas species of the roaches. Second, a subway worker discovers a larval form of the bug man that he shows to Sorvino, and she delivers it to Abraham for examination. And finally, Goodwin goes into the church across the street from his house were a priest was killed and encounters two bug men, while his father Giancarlo Giannini searches for him when he goes missing. Director del Toro does a nice job of building suspense by having all of the principals, save Abraham, wind up trapped in the subway with the giant bugs, which Abraham has determined is an actual colony rather than isolated specimens. At this point the film turns into something like Alien and, unlike a lot of other modern horror film, it works because of the way the film is constructed as an homage to those older films.

If there’s something about the film that hasn’t aged well, it’s the lead actors. Unlike Alien, which sported a host of A-list actors--even if only in retrospect--Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam are decidedly lesser talents. F. Murray Abraham, while an incredibly gifted actor, hasn’t been able to find a project that even comes close to Amadeus, and therefore has had to settle for character roles that severely underutilize him. Josh Brolin was early in his career and adds little more than many other actors could have done, though Charles S. Dutton does some nice work with a small role as a cynical cop. And while Alexander Goodwin is almost clichéd in his reading of the kid, the real standout among the supporting actors is Giancarlo Giannini, who brings a European believability to his role as Goodwin’s father. The ending of the film treads dangerously close to camp, but it never goes over the line, and while there is a certain amount of improbability to the climax it can almost be forgiven amid the impressive, Giger-like bowels of New York City and the non-CGI special effects work on the giant insects. Though the acting in Mimic may not have aged well in the past twenty years, the film definitely has its moments and is well worth taking a look at.

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