Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Josh Brolin, Giancarlo Giannini, Charles S. Dutton, F. Murray Abraham
Watch Mimic online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
With The Shape of Water swimming into UK cinemas this February, we begin a Guillermo del Toro retrospective, looking back at the director’s career, from the underrated gems available to stream to the lesser-known early works that are not.
Released in 1997, Mimic was Guillermo del Toro’s first English-language feature, following the international success of his 1993 debut, Cronos. Due to repeated studio interference from Miramax, including the indignity of not receiving final cut, del Toro was unhappy with the film on its initial release, but he eventually released an approved Director’s Cut in 2011, the version watched for this review.
Based on a short story by Donald A. Wollheim, the film’s beginning could almost be the end of a different movie. Entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) manages to wipe out a deadly plague in New York by genetically engineering a bug she calls the Judas breed, which kills off all the disease-carrying cockroaches. Three years later, a series of mysterious deaths are occurring in the New York subway tunnels and Susan realises, to her horror, that the Judas breed has evolved to a terrifying degree: not only have they grown to gigantic size, but they are also capable of mimicking their prey, even developing a carapace that looks like a human face.
Together with her husband, CDC director Dr Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam) and an incredulous cop (Charles S. Dutton, the closest the film comes to comic relief), Susan investigates, at which point the film starts to successfully mimic Aliens, as Susan faces off against the giant creatures and the supporting cast (including a youthful-looking Josh Brolin) gradually get picked off.
Despite its poor reception at the time (it failed to recoup its $30m budget at the box office), Mimic holds up remarkably well. A large part of that is due to Rick Lazzarini’s superb creature effects, which look real and physical, so there’s none of the shoddy CGI you associate with other mid-to-late-90s effects movies (looking at you, Jumanji). To be fair, there are digital effects in the film too, but like Gary Sinise’s legs in Forrest Gump, you can’t see them.
Considering how unhappy he was with the finished film, it’s remarkable just how many of del Toro’s own obsessions are front and centre in the movie. The giant bugs combine the director’s love of both insects and monsters, while the subway and sewer systems play into his fondness for dark places and labyrinthine, underground areas. In fact, it has a number of things in common with The Shape of Water, such as the predominantly green palette and a character (Alexander Goodwin’s Chuy) who communicates with the creatures, albeit by mimicking their sounds through playing the spoons, rather than teaching them sign language.
In addition, the film has a certain amount of religious imagery (including a stigmata-like shot towards the end), although that aspect of the story was diluted by the studio – del Toro’s original intention was to suggest that the bugs have evolved to the point where they’ve replaced humans in the eyes of God, but that element is largely gone from the film, which explains why the character of religious subway shoeshiner Manny (Giancarlo Giannini) feels so inconsequential. (He was supposed to kill himself after realising the above point.)
Even with studio interference, Mimic is still much darker than the average monster movie. It’s extremely rare for a creature feature to kill off children, for example, but that’s exactly what happens here. Similarly, del Toro manages to bump off a higher-than-usual proportion of the supporting cast and even gets away with an image of a wall covered in excrement (in the service of a “look at this weird shit” gag).
On top of everything else, the film is a lot of fun. The attack sequences are excitingly staged and del Toro includes a number of creepy moments (the moment where the insect’s “human” face pops up in the dark is genuinely brilliant) and clever directorial touches. One that stands out involves Susan looking for an escaped bug under a table, and, as she gets up, she passes a poster of a giant spider, framed so that it looks like it’s dropped down behind her – despite that description, it’s a subtle moment that isn’t even played as a jump scare, but is effective nonetheless and indicative of a dark sense of humour. There’s also a fun Hitchcock homage (Northam’s bit of business with the lighter towards the end), if you like that sort of thing.
As for the performances, Sorvino is terrific in what was pretty much her last mainstream role before Harvey Weinstein derailed her career (looking back, the Sorvino vs. Giant Cockroach metaphor feels rather prescient), and she’s ably supported by Northam, Dutton and Giannini, even if the film never quite figures out what to do with Goodwin’s Chuy.
Incidentally, del Toro’s commentary on the Director’s Cut Blu-ray throws up a lot of fascinating trivia, particularly in the detail of his clashes with the studio. The most intriguing (and disheartening) example is that del Toro originally wanted Andre Braugher to play Northam’s part, and was horrified when the studio told him audiences weren’t ready for a mixed race couple. On a similar note, Josh Brolin’s character was originally intended to be gay, but del Toro lost that battle too, and had to settle for smaller victories, such as insisting that Northam’s character wore glasses.