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Mimic Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 29, 2011

    Mimic Review

    Why you askin' me if I've ever seen some sh*t like this before? Do I look like I've seen some sh*t like this before? Hell, no, I ain't never seen some sh*t like this before!!!”

    And what better way to introduce this review for the Director's Cut of Mimic from Lionsgate, courtesy of Charles S. Dutton's exasperated New York Subway cop.

    Fans have been waiting for this for a long time. Guillermo Del Toro's first studio-backed Hollywood outing, Mimic, was conceived as a delirious creature-feature that could utilise the director's unique visual and thematic sensibility to create something fresh for the genre. Ultimately, with the Weinsteins holding the purse strings and with their inability to just let their chosen director get on with things, the film, as good as it was, turned out to be a troubling experience for Del Toro and a stark warning about how difficult and closed-minded the “suits” can be when confronted with genuine originality and the sort of idiosyncratic creativity that the man responsible for the unusual vampire drama Cronos was soon to become renowned for.

    It was a testing time for the filmmaker, but an affair he declares he learned a great deal from. Every master-craftsman must go through his own trial-by-fire to discover his true mehodology. Mimic was to be Del Toro's endurance test.

    Stripping out his concepts and ideas almost from the get-go, the studio fought pitched battles with Del Toro even on the set. His very first shot – a dreamy, haunted view down the highly stylised, drape-enshrouded hospital ward – struck fear in the producers' hearts. What was this arty-farty crap doing in a big-bug movie? These guys had approached Del Toro because they'd loved the imagery in Cronos and now they were concerned that he wasn't going to be commercial enough. The resulting theatrical cut of the 1997 picture may not have revealed too many scars of the infighting that went on – at least not to audiences who saw it at the time – but once we grew accustomed to Del Toro's fantastical style with subsequent movies such as The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, the rifts, removals and tacked-on make-dos became all the more apparent. What should have been a tremendously character-based monster movie with sincere visual references and an unusual depth of soul devolved into … well, just another monster movie. And one that lacked enough kills and gore for the usual crowd.

    Now that he has finally been allowed to go back and revisit the film, the Mexican auteur has been able to reassemble something more akin to his original interpretation, dabbling in its DNA to splice together a version that is clearly evolved from his original vision before the suits did some tampering of their own. And he is certainly proud enough of this fresher, deeper and more considered take to hail it as his “Director's Cut”. Running seven minutes longer, this now makes more emphasis on the thematic juxtapositions and ideas that originally intrigued Del Toro and his co-writer Matthew (Dragonslayer) Robbins when they took Donald A. Wollheim's short story of the same name and expanded it greatly from the notion of “one creepy guy in a grey raincoat” who is really an insect, to a whole race of these critters slowly gaining a foothold in preparation for a takeover-bid to become the dominant species. In fact, there are many screenwriters who had a hand in the evolution of the story. Amongst the simmering broth of toiling scribes were John Sayles, of Piranha and Alligator fame, indie-god Stephen Soderbergh and Matthew Greenberg. The final film, even this cut of it, is a conglomeration of ideas, sometimes only snatches of dialogue and some visual descriptions, from everybody who pitched in.

    But, most defiantly, we can now see the guiding hand of Guillermo Del Toro far more clearly.

    We learn only enigmatic but disturbing clues about the devastating outbreak of Strickler's Disease, a terrible blight that stemmed from cockroaches and struck down the children of Manhattan Island, threatening to spread further and to potentially eradicate a whole generation. Viral Entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) finds the way to combat this disaster by breeding a genetically altered strain of the bug, called the Judas Breed, which, when introduced to the sewers, will wipe out the plague-carriers and then succumb to a suicide-gene that will deny them the chance of breeding and creating their own havoc. But, as with those dinos in Dickie Attenborough's ill-fated Jurassic Park, mother nature has a way of derailing the best of scientific plans and turning them into very dangerous folly. The Judas Breed do not die out as intended and, three years, something strange and sinister is happening below the streets and subways. The things have not only survived, but they've managed to breed and, in one of the original story's and especially in Del Toro's translation of it, grown considerably in size and taken on the highly specialised ability to mimic the appearance of their main predator – which is us. With people going missing and mumbled, half-deranged talk of “Dark Angels” uttered from the poor Asian slave-labour forced to live and work in the basement of a very corrupt church, and the queer observations made of a very macabre-looking figure lurking in the back-alleys, circumstances soon lead Susan and her CDA boyfriend Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam) to uncover the terrible truth of what their victorious disease-quashing campaign has led to, and a ferocious battle beneath the earth ensues.

    Oh, Del Toro cherishes his sewers and subways. He loves the idea of going through a doorway into another world – and this other world is usually on a downward spiral. We've seen it in both Hellboys and Blade II and even in The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Now he manages to inveigle his unusual gaggle of human protagonists down into the Big Apple's underbelly and to submerge them all in muck and filth, yet never lose that mysteriously dark beauty that can be found down there. His colour coded aesthetic for the movie was cyan and amber. Both elements appear somewhat sickly and somehow foetid, and yet enticing at the same time. Once Peter, his CDA partner Josh (Josh Brolin) and subway cop Leonard (Charles S. Dutton) end up in the bowels of New York's netherworld, they are lit only by torches, the unusual light filtering down from ceilings and glass, and from the orange glow-sticks they brought with them. Poor shoe-shine guy Manny (Giancarlo Giannini from Daniel Craig's first two Bond outings) conducts a tentative search down through the basement of the dilapidated church and into the sewers with only the weak glow from his lighter to guide him in a heart-wrenching attempt to find his bug-kidnapped nephew Chuy (Alexander Goodwin). Susan, herself, is hauled off her feet in another bug abduction and dropped into the creatures' pantry. All have entered another realm and must somehow band together and find a way to defeat the unholy menace that is thriving down there.

    Typically for the director, we find ourselves in unusual company for what looks, on the surface at least, to be a generic horror flick. Mira Sorvino brings immense charisma and humanity to the role of the champion scientist forced into tackling a crisis born out of her own damn brilliance. She even manages to convince, on a none-contrived and credibly emotional level (which is rare), the side-plot of her own attempts to get pregnant – an element that is expanded-upon in this more thoughtful cut of the movie. A stalwart defender of Del Toro during his pitched battles with the producers, Sorvino proves her mettle in many ways as she has to combat the creatures down in the dank and disgusting remains of their larder. She also looks great when haloed with black shadows, providing a modern twist on the iconic image of a damsel in distress. But she enables Susan to be a lot more than just a mere scream-queen.

    Among a couple of other choices, Del Toro wanted John Turturro to play Peter, and you can certainly see a similarity to the Coen Brothers' luminary in actor Jeremy Northam. Sadly, I don't rate Northam very highly … and I don't like him all that much in this either. I just can't warm to him at all, and this naturally plays mischief when it comes to his noble act towards the end. But then this is delightfully offset with the inclusion of Giancarlo Giannini who brings much heart and soul to the role of the subway shoe-shine and protector of Chuy. Manny is clearly a variation on Frederico Luppi's Jesus from Cronos and a touching reminder of what would have possibly occurred if the Judas Breed had not been successful at eradicating the disease-bugs – the missing familial element in their relationship a poignant symbol of a lost generation. Wisely though, neither Del Toro nor Giannini opt to take the whole hunt-for-Chuy into upsetting territory. But then Giannini has such a brow-beaten, weathered face that any further anguish really wouldn't show. And, as little Chuy, we have a young lad, who, once again, seems to be that now very familiar “unusual” innocent that Del Toro is so entranced by. Clearly autistic, Chuy has no fear of the bugs. In fact, he actively seeks them out. Having frequently observed one of them in its mimic guise, he has christened it Mr. Funny Shoes in reference to his own uncanny ability to ascertain size and type of any footwear that he sees or even hears on the streets. Rather neatly, this gift is translated to his tendency to tap out footstep cadences on his knee with a couple of spoons. Once we've heard the creatures unearthly chittering, we know where this audio fascination is headed.

    The Director's Cut now gives us more time with Josh Brolin in what was one of his earliest roles. His character of Peter's work-buddy was viciously truncated in the theatrical version, but we get much more of a sense both of his humour and his affable dedication to duty. F. Murray Abraham appears in what could be termed as the Max Von Sydow part. That is, renowned elder statesmen of the stage and screen wheeled-on to lend an air of dignity and gravitas to the otherwise conventional genre proceedings. However, that face does ensure that Mimic has more of Del Toro's unusual, but potent semi-ugly Euro-vogue. His character may well have something important to say but it comes without any real clout of relevance, meaning that even though looks interesting his couple of scenes feel like breathe-easys.

    Unsurprisingly, Del Toro is able to bring in his usual religious symbolism and imagery too. The use of the church as a den of slave-labour is a weird statement on corrupted values and brazen falsehoods. The array of polythene-covered mannequins and statues amidst the pews is another striking example of a doctrine that has possibly gone stale and become obsolete. This is certainly the case when you contrast blind faith with the absolutism of insect politics – something that ties-in Mimic with Cronenberg. It is great that Del Toro doesn't feel the need to broadcast these notions in gaudy neon, though. Rather he lets you pick them up for yourself. If you want. They aren't essential, they are just interesting flavours that more sensitive palates can savour. When Chuy enters the church to seek out Mr. Funny-shoes, Del Toro creates a fabulous sense of troubled iconography. Stepping over a broken figure of Christ, Chuy becomes flanked by two of the bugs in human-guise, as they close in upon him, all three framed by the eerie beauty of the stained-glass window behind them. In his commentary, Del Toro cites this, rather cheekily and with a giggle, as his twisted Holy Trinity. You've got to adore little things like this … it shows that a director is thinking about everything that he does.

    Mimic belongs to a cinematic tradition that has seen some fantastic highs and some lamentable lows. But it certainly stands alongside other classic “insect” pictures such as Them!, Cronenberg's The Fly, Squirm, Arachnophobia and even Starship Troopers. And it can also claim membership of the science-gone-mad trend that commenced with Frankenstein. It was never supposed to be about cockroaches though. Del Toro, ever the budding entomologist himself, had done painstaking research into the most scientifically credible insect that could conceivably mimic and evolve in such a spectacular fashion – a variety of tree-beetle that could actually be found in Central Park. But the “suits” didn't like that. It smacked of too much reality. So they demanded that he radically morph his villains into something that New Yorkers knew all too well – the common (well not so common in this instance) cockroach. The blighters had been seen waging incendiary war against Bradford Dillman in Bug and erupting from out of E.G. Marshall's face and body in Creepshow. It seemed too tacky to Del Toro, especially when the money-men wanted the things to look more like aliens! But, even if he didn't fancy the idea at all, Del Toro resolved to provide the armoured pests with their finest hour yet.

    And I don't think he's been beaten in this game either.

    One of the film's greatest images is that of the bugs when they are in covert mimic-mode. Standing upright at around six feet tall, they can close their front claws over their mandibles in the semblance of a human face and, their wings folded-in around them, take on a human shape and silhouette. This single image is both beguiling and utterly horrifying. There's no way one of these guys could pass for a human in the cold light of day … but half-glimpsed in the shadows and the ever-present New York rain, they could watch and wait with camouflaged impunity. That jigsaw-face is an incredible conception. When locked in place, the sunken ghoul-like visage partially resembles the hideous countenance of Legend's swamp-hag-witch, Meg Mucklebones, albeit with a much more shrunken nose. This ties-in, of course, when we remember that the creature design was partially augmented and “officially”overseen by makeup-FX whiz Rob Bottin, who had worked on the earlier Ridley Scott film (see separate BD review). In actual fact, the main man responsible for the intricate bug-design work was Tyruben Ellingson, who was compelled, at studio behest, to take a lower billing than the more well-known Bottin. The thing is, for me personally I mean, that this grandly blood-curdling image then comes undone when the monster-bugs go and unfurl their wings and drop the masquerade to become … just big bugs. I don't like cockroaches – well, who does? - but they just don't spook me out. At all. And these winged critters, as awesomely rendered as they are with a combination of simply incredible animatronics and surprisingly effective early CG (only around 70 shots according to Del Toro), just lose that essential creep-out and chill factor when we see them in full-on bug-attack mode. Perhaps they appear too spindly and too much like a preying mantis, which just isn't scary either. But the irony is also that when we witness the things surrounding the train carriage and beating on it, they actually look like men in costumes – a completely ironic mimic, when you think about it. But in close-up, they are technically wondrous.

    Another bonus with this Del Toro cut of the movie is that the notion of the usurping of Mankind by insects as God's favourite creation is now a lot more apparent, although I would say that this complex analogy is still quite subtly played. Little symbolic images such as Susan and Peter talking about their so-far ineffective attempts at getting pregnant in front of a display of dinosaur fossils, and the whole idea that she was, in fact, the ironic mother to the Judas Breed now get more breathing space. Even though these elements now have more of a pressing concern on the narrative, Del Toro never bashes you over the head with them. Look at how Renny Harlin treated the not-all-that-dissimilar Deep Blue Sea. With his tale of Frankenstein-like shark manipulation by another scientific surrogate mother, we were left in absolutely no doubt about the vicious circle that such nature tampering can bring about. In Mimic, which posits exactly the same basic idea, this is left very much for the viewer to pick up on and is all the more effective for it. Manny slags her off when he finds out what she did, but even this isn't something that Del Toro belabours.

    Carol Spier, who had previously worked for Cronenberg on the likes of eXistenz, was responsible for helping turn Del Toro's visually emotive production designs into monstrously elaborate sets. The diversity between the two worlds – the human world above ground and the bug-dominated world below – is captivating. Above, we have straight lines – the alleyways, the edges of roofs, the train platform – and below, everything is curved and curled – arches, round grates and tunnels and ducts. It is remarkable how subconsciously suggestive this is of eggs and larvae. The shadow world is like a host of cocoons and often its feels as though we are peering into a vivarium with miniaturised humans scurrying through it. Even the T-shirt that one of the bug-collecting kids is wearing sports an amber/brown image of a basketball on it that comes to resemble the very egg-sack that he and his buck-toothed buddy are searching for.

    Dan Laustsen's camera prowls around the sewers and the disused subway with an almost sensual grace and a fine fluidity. Del Toro relaxes from the locked-camera style of Cronos to move around his sets and his characters with a smoothly intuitive finesse. There is nothing dizzying or overly-elaborate in the photography. This isn't like Sam Raimi or Dario Argento doing acrobatics. They want to draw attention to such technically virtuoso moments, but the visual flow of this film is as graceful as anything that Dean Cundey supplied for John Carpenter. Odd angles are immaculately sought, close-ups ravishing. The camera moves slowly around the characters, countering their movements and almost sizing-them-up like the watchful predatory gaze of a spider. There is a European slant to the cinematography which only makes the film somehow more intimate. Look at the shots of Mannie crossing the street in the downpour to go an investigate the church. Giannini's face, his white shirt and braces and the way that the framing has been composed is just so achingly reminiscent of an Italian or French drama set in the 20's or 30's. This sort of thing can't fail to add layers and texture to the movie.

    Del Toro has a great deal of fun with role-reversals. His main conceit is that humans become the insects in the warren beneath the ground. They are frequently bathed in pools of amber light, almost as though they have been drawn to them like bugs. But he makes his statement about us becoming the prey most especially in the veritable “roach-motel” of the train carriage that our heroes are forced to hole-up inside during the anxious third act. Trapped, and with the beasties trying to batter their way in, this is as clear a metaphor as you can get. But even here Del Toro offers a cute and clever way out. If the humans smear themselves with the foul goo that lubricates the bugs then they confuse them and move about without drawing their carnivorous attentions. Thus, the heroes have to mimic the mimics. He may have had a vast number of difficulties getting the movie made his way, but there is a continual wit at work here that totally belies such stressful times.

    I can't fail to mention composer Marco Beltrami's contribution to the movie. Relatively new to the game when he was approached to score Mimic, Beltrami found the eerie, skin-crawling inner-core of Del Toro's tale. With lots of European and exotic touches, his music is soft and bittersweet for Chuy and Manny, and yet yearning for Susan and Peter. Choral laments and string elements twist and slide with pure dread and menace for the bugs and for the opening horrors of the outbreak of Strickler's Disease. But Beltrami, who has since proved himself as a master of sudden set-piece action, with Hellboy and Blade II for Del Toro, 3.10 To Yuma and two absolutely classic cues for Knowing being terrific stand-outs, packs some bravura, pulse-pounding and percussive moments of spiralling, heart-stopping terror. The way in which he weaves the three thematic devices together is superlative – and his score enables the film to glide between the spine-tingling, the moving and the electrifying with ease.

    In his accompanying commentary, Del Toro mentions that his film coming out at around the same time as Peter Hyams' awesome monster-rampage flick, The Relic (BD also reviewed), was not helpful. As detractors would say, there were too many similarities and even the titles – Relic and Mimic – sounded too alike. However, to fans of this sort of thing, how could you possibly go wrong with two such monster-chompers? Both films are awesome. Perhaps surprisingly, given my devotion to Del Toro, I tend to prefer The Relic, myself, simply because that big beast is so damn good, and the film is just more action-packed and bloody, but the productions are very definitely two entirely separate entities and do not detract from one another in the least.

    Mind you, even with this Director's Cut, Mimic, itself, is a film of two halves.

    The first half, all mystery and menace, and slow-build tension populated on the periphery by those magnificent “mimics” is the better constructed. Once we descend into the depths, things may get a lot juicier, but I feel that Del Toro loses his own way. The mask has come off too early and from that point onwards the film is merely a survival run. The downside with revealing the full potential of the monsters at the midway section is that there are no surprises left with which to shock us. And the early suggestions of human-like stealth-patterns and motivations - such as stealing back the evidence of their existence from Susan's lab – are simply jettisoned. The bugs just become big monsters again, which I ordinarily wouldn't have a problem with, but when it previously appeared that they were steadily gaining wild and wondrous new capabilities all along, this can't help but feel like a backward step. Del Toro does talk about how he wanted the film to have originally ended and I have to say that it sounds amazing, and it really would have been the most logical and haunting finale, actually delivering a much smarter pay-off to the evolutionary powers of the Judas Breed. Sadly, alas, this intelligent denouement was to be denied … and we are still left with that annoying and patently fobbed-off conclusion that we are familiar with from the theatrical cut.

    For what it is worth, I can't stand how the film ends. It doesn't affect how much I enjoy the rest of it, but it irks, just the same. Now this is where I thought the most damaging compromise was made. Without entering Spoiler County, I will just say that this doesn't feel at all like a Del Toro conclusion. It wimps out in favour of Hollywood values and even botches the outcome of the “family” situation. The change made to Susan's pregnancy in this cut actually cheapens the visual resolution that we are supposed to latch onto at the end … which remains unaltered from the theatrical version. Of course it is only because I know how meticulous Del Toro is when it comes to structuring his narrative and hidden subtexts that this causes me grief.

    But the pluses of this cut far outweigh the minuses, with the ironic clash of motherhood hopes and responsibilities, especially, now providing a valid layer of emotional context.

    This version ditches the majority of the dreaded 2nd Unit material – the shocks and expositional guff that Del Toro habitually abhors and has not, since Mimic, ever employed. He reckons about 95 percent of the movie, as we see it here, was shot by himself. Notably, Robert Rodriquez, who was one of several 2nd Unit directors, had his footage of the double-kid killing redone by Del Toro, who wasn't satisfied with the material he shot. This sort of thing just goes to show how lame-headed big studio producers really are at trying to compress and generalise films for what they “assume” to be the target market, and why such genre fare as action and horror tend to suffer, artistically, even though some amazing talent is apparently at the helm. However, there do remain some inconsistencies here and there. A new scene at the sewage treatment plant has what we are told is the body of a “kid” fished out of the putrid water, and Susan is then called down to investigate. But we next see the carcass of some Judas larvae on the morgue slab. Obviously the sewage worker got it wrong, but the statement still doesn't sit right, especially as we have already seen a couple of very young bug-collecting entrepreneurs getting chomped. Just a simple “what the hell is that?” would have been much better and far less misleading. This now only seems to indicate that the original scene doesn't properly fit in with this longer cut. And yet it is still a nice new sequence that opens up the sense of a growing problem and adds to the general feeling of escalating unease.

    Historically this was an important film for Guillermo Del Toro. It brought him directly into contact with the type of sleazy, jaundiced bureaucracy that he swiftly learned to keep well clear of in the future. It helped to cement his name as a major talent working in the realm of the fantastique for a much wider audience. And it meant that he gained the clout and the prestige that enabled him to make Hellboy. Mimic remains a marvellous piece of work. It is not without a few faults here and there, but it thunderously good entertainment that successfully mixes monsters with suspense and conjures a few ideas that, perhaps, aren't so easily squished as your average cockroach.

    A fun thriller has just evolved into something a whole lot richer.