The cockroach population in Manhattan explodes, resulting in the outbreak of a deadly epidemic which claims the lives of hundreds of the borough’s children. In response, entomologist Susan Tyler genetically engineers the Judas Breed–a new species of insect designed to prey on cockroaches, reduce their numbers, stop the outbreak and die out in a matter of months. Three years later, people begin to disappear in the subway tunnels beneath the city, and when Dr. Tyler and her husband/colleague Dr. Peter Mann are called in to investigate, they make a shocking discovery: the Judas Breed didn’t die out as planned…and they have adapted into a much more efficient and frightening predator that doesn’t just prey on cockroaches…

Gigantic insectile predators chasing hapless humans through dingy subterranean corridors: sound familiar? While it’s true that director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro (who only had Cronos under his belt in 1996, but would go on to become a household name in the genre thanks to big-budget efforts like Hellboy and cult classics such as Pan’s Labyrinth) is able to use his second feature-length directorial effort to worth through some of his pet obsessions–insects, monstrous creatures, dingy and humid locations, and surrogate mother figures putting their necks on the line for symbolic orphaned children–it also can’t be denied that Mimic suffers from a certain lack of freshness.

The storyline and plot is by and far the weakest aspect of the production. The science is, to say the least, a bit squidgy (the Judas Breed is able to evolve from a small bug to a huge flying insect, taller than a human, with the ability to mimic human physiognomy within six generations), and the script doesn’t use the Breed’s “mimic” trait to a satisfying extent. Too many set-pieces wear their inspiration too visibly on their sleeves (I dare you to watch one scene, towards the end, and not yell “Get away from her, you bitch!” during it). An entire subplot–involving an elderly shoe-shiner named Manny and his apparently autistic apprentice/ward, a young boy named Chuy, who’s taken by the Breed–doesn’t seem to have much function other than for Chuy to play Newt to Tyler’s Ripley. And it’s definitely the sort of movie where you can work out whether a character’s going to live or die within minutes of their first appearance on film. (Two pleasant surprises: Tyler and Mann’s assistant Remy, who’d be guaranteed dead by the second act’s halfway point in a lesser movie, survives to the end. Meanwhile, a couple of obnoxious, over-capitalistic kids get crunched by the monsters.)

The characterization is a bit thin, as well–only Chuy and a subway policeman named Leonard get much in the way of distinct personality. The lead cast (Mira Sorvino as Tyler, Jeremy Northam as Mann, Josh Brolin as Mann’s cop buddy Josh, Charles Dutton as Leonard) aren’t bad in the roles, but neither do they do much to impress. Sorvino isn’t entirely credible as a scientist, Northam has a hard time disguising his native accent, and Dutton tries a bit too hard. The supporting cast–in particular Alix Koromzay as Remy and Alexander Goodwin as Chuy–are much better and memorable in their roles, and F. Murray Abraham has a hammy good time as Mann’s mentor.

While the story and some of the acting are weak, the visual aspects of the production go some way to make up for that. Del Toro’s directing doesn’t quite earn him auteur status at this point in his career, but there’s some impressive camera and location work, and the proceedings are pretty tense even though there’s rarely any surprise about what’s going to happen next. He’s also very good at capturing Manhattan as a character, a vital skill required when making a movie set in New York. There’s some pretty impressive CGI (or what I assume is CGI) considering the period in which the film was made, and the monsters–designed by occasional Del Toro collaborator TyRuben Ellingson and the living legend Rob Bottin–are breathtakingly beautiful, when you can actually see them. (Not a criticism–minimizing unobscured appearances by monsters is a lesson I wish del Toro would have passed down to a couple of his proteges.)

As visually engaging as the film is, however, it’s hard to shake the feeling that a film with this pedigree and cast should be a lot better than it actually is. On the other hand, the fact that Mimic is watchable at all might be seen as a sort of triumph, considering what other dreck was made in the Crichton-esque techno-horror mode (including a few actual Crichton adaptations).

My rating: 5 of 10.

105 minutes. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Alexander Goodwin, Giancarlo Giannini, Charles S. Dutton, Josh Brolin.

MIMIC poster

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