“A Bold Experiment. A Deadly Mistake!”
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Alexander Goodwin
Synopsis: Three years ago, entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler genetically created an insect to kill cockroaches carrying a virulent disease. Now, the insects are out to destroy their only predator, mankind.
When Mimic, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s first English language movie, was released in 1997, the TV series The X Files was very much at the peak of its popularity, and there is an X Files vibe about this movie’s story. At least there is in the opening act, although pretty soon Mimic reverts to the staple genre ingredient of a group of individuals trapped in a confined space waiting to be picked off one-by-one by some unreasoning monster. Nevertheless, Mimic is a superior example of its genre which transcends its modest budget to deliver an exciting tale of monsters in the subway while also throwing in a couple of unexpected developments (such as the gory demise of not one but two children).
Mimic begins with a prologue which sees the city of New York in the grip of Strickler’s Disease, a particularly deadly virus which is threatening to wipe out an entire generation of the city’s children. Although there’s no known cure for the disease, Dr Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam – Carrington) of the Centre for Disease Control determines that the disease is spread by cockroaches, and enlists the aid of entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) to create a genetically engineered bug to wipe out the diseased cockroaches. These bugs, which Tyler dubs the Judas Breed, are genetically programmed to expire within six months without reproducing, thus eliminating the risk of exchanging one infestation for another. The operation to wipe out the diseased cockroach population is a complete success, earning Tyler the thanks of the entire New York population and, as an additional bonus, a new boyfriend in the form of Dr. Mann.
Fat-forward three years and while the couple are happily trying for a baby, across the city a preacher is falling from the roof of a run-down church in his attempt to escape from a tall, thin man wearing a long overcoat. Chuy (Alexander Goodwin), a small autistic boy who lives with his shoeshine father, Manny (Giancarlo Giannini) in the apartment opposite the church, witnesses the preacher’s body being dragged into the church’s basement by a man he describes as Mr. Funny Shoes.
The police investigation into the preacher’s death uncovers a basement filled with immigrants suffering from yellow fever, and the cops call in Mann. Further investigation uncovers large clumps of faeces, a sample of which is later revealed to contain buttons, in corridors that are linked to the city’s network of subway tunnels. At the same time that Mann is making this discovery, Tyler is purchasing bug samples from a couple of boys with the ghoulish hobby of hunting for insects in the disused tunnels of the New York subway, one of which appears to be a baby version of the Judas Breed which should have died out two-and-a-half years before.
There are two directions in which Mimic could have gone from this point: either an invasion tale in which the bugs begin to overrun New York, or the story of a small group of individuals’ attempt to wipe out the nest of mutant bugs before they can become numerous enough to overrun the city. Seeing as how the second option is by far the cheapest, this is the route del Toro takes. The streets of New York appear to sit above not only a network of tunnels that make up the subway system but also an equally large network of deserted tunnels and corridors in which the bugs have made their home. Most of the movie takes place in these corridors, or in dingy basements and abandoned churches, and in fact this descent into the darkness can be seen as a consequence of our rejection of religion (the abandoned, run-down church) in favour of the dubious benefits to be derived from scientific advances (Tyler’s genetic tinkering).
While Mimic does adhere to a well-used template, it also injects enough deviations from the norm to give it a certain individuality. In addition to those two kids unexpectedly becoming early snacks for the oversized bugs, we have an authority figure (Charles Dutton’s Manhattan Transit Authority officer) who undergoes a slow, believable transformation from belligerent tin Hitler to tragic hero. The movie also boasts a sumptuously rich colour palette when it isn’t submerged in the darkness of the tunnels. Matthew Robins’ screenplay also plays with the idea that the bugs might not only have developed the ability to mimic its human prey, but also the power of conscious thought rather than merely acting upon their predatory instincts.
(Reviewed 25th January 2014)