Mimic (1997)

D: Guillermo del Toro
S: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Charles S. Dutton

Atmospheric but poorly scripted horror film from the director of the cult hit Cronos. Genetically altered insects rage out of control in the New York subway system. Scientist Mira Sorvino and an assortment of other stock types attempt to solve the problem.

While the film benefits from wonderful production design by David Cronenberg regular Carol Spier and crisp photography by Dan Lausten, del Toro's prowling, portentous style only works to a point. The individual scenes are handled well and there are momentary inspirations which make it interesting from a purely cinematic point of view. But cinema is also about the use (and abuse) of dialogue, and a few well timed and well chosen words would have served this film well (Aliens being an obvious template).

The scenario, developed and co-written by a small committee which at one point allegedly featured John Sayles (Remember his seminal Jaws spoofs Alligator and Piranha?), is low on exposition, high on suspenseful confrontations. When exposition does come, it is either too little or too late and does not add to the build up of expectation. Lacking a strong context to the action, or even a real sense of the creatures' motivations (we get some vague references to 'territory' and 'nesting', but the film does not proceed with mounting tension into the heart of the problem, it merely suddenly arrives at a crisis point after a long build up split into three or four separate sub stories), there is simply no depth and barely even enough superficial detail to sustain interest.

The bug movie has a long history, evolving from Them! to Phase IV to the likes of Starship Troopers. Man confronts his most terrifying opponent, the species most likely to endure in the event of our extinction. The organisation, relentlessness and brutal simplicity of the insect kingdom inevitably poses threats to the melee set off by a potpourri of human characters who populate the films and whose responses vary with the vagaries of their personalities.

Unfortunately, the window dressing of genetics, a generally non-hysterical female scientist and a token idiot savant (an 8 year old boy with uncanny powers of mimicry) can't disguise the fact that this story has spun itself out on a metaphoric level long before the action gets frenetic. Surrealistic touches such as the inclusion of religious symbolism and the overall organising principles of reproduction and mimicry remain frustratingly indented, and while the film does not foreground pointless gore and violence (though there is plenty of both) in its stead, it fails to realise its potential and is an unsatisfying experience.

The film is full of possibilities, but none are developed and worked through. Tantalising alleyways of plot are left unexplored, including the exact reason for the rooftop chase with which the main action begins, the fate of the 'yellow fever' victims in the insect-infested church, the communication between the young boy and the creatures via his playing spoons in exact rhythm with their own insectoid clicking, veteran scientist F. Murray Abraham's fleeting references to Frankenstein, etc. Thematic teasers such as Sorvino's attempts to become pregnant, the disease which affects only children, the omnipresence of crucifixes and the necessity for a combined human response to an alien threat remain for the viewer to decide upon their relative significance. The film merely proceeds from suspense scene to suspense scene with the bare bones of a story between them, leaving such things as fleeting shadows at the edge of imagination. While, again, each of these scenes is handled well, there is a sense that a much richer film was not far beneath the surface, if only it could have been brought out.

Unfortunately, many will simply find the film boring and cliched, which is unfair to its makers given the level of craft which is sometimes evident. But like the earlier Species, it finally collapses under the weight of its failure to resolve its narrative and thematic threads in other than the most formulaic fashion. The result is not without worth for the attuned, but on the whole a disappointment.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.