Mimic: when bugs enter the uncanny valley

Day 24: Bugs! Bugs everywhere! And a movie about them as well!

The following was originally posted on Flick Attack, 29 April 2013.

When it comes down to the brass tacks (whatever that might mean), this is all you need to know to make an effective and informed decision about whether to plunk yourself down on the couch to enjoy the giant cockroach film Mimic: the kids die.

Peter Hyams‘ workmanlike and similar-title-sounding monster epic The Relic was released around the same time, and it, too, had a scene where wise-cracking, street-smart kids did some ill-advised adventuring down dark pathways. Of the two, Relic’s kids are far more annoying; sadly, they survive that movie’s man-beast, whereas director/geek titan Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) has no compunction about showing the feral impulses of his mutated arthropods.

This kid? Don’t get attached to him.

So if you’re looking for a “safe” monsterama that entertains yet doesn’t strive for anything else, Relic is your monster of choice. Want something with a little more meat and gristle? Go Team Mimic (although I do have a soft spot for Relic, flawed and by-the-numbers as it is—when the blood starts flowing, it’s a terrific monster mash).

Del Toro’s sci-fi bug horror is hardly a perfect beast, although it’s recently been made much better through the long-awaited director’s cut, adding vital character development, backstory, and subtlety to what is still very much an “us vs. them” movie à la Aliens. Yet even in its neutered form, Mimic is the best pure killer-bug film in ages, possibly since the giant ants of 1954’s Them! Whereas Them! warned us of the dangers of nuclear testing, Mimic introduces the more modern peril of biological tampering. Its heritage hews closer to Frankenstein than The Deadly Mantis, as Mira Sorvino’s scientist has the best of intentions, releasing bioengineered sterile cockroaches to stop a plague. As in all “nature runs amok” films, however, nature finds a way; in this instance, “the way” is to grow to 6 feet tall and learn to imitate humans, because horror.

Del Toro’s initial plans never fully came to fruition, but what survived brutal studio interference is still damned entertaining. Sorvino (The Replacement Killers) is strong and resourceful as the resident Sigourney; Jeremy Northam (Gosford Park) makes a charmingly geeky counterpart; Charles S. Dutton (Alien 3) pulls out his usual Charles S. Dutton charm in the role of Police Officer Charles S. Dutton. Also, early Josh Brolin! The CGI is fine (if a little raw), the practical effects gloriously disgusting (you’ll never think about excrement the same way again!), and if the result somewhat lacks for the usual del Toro verve, blame studio execs.

It’s instructive to place Mimic up against movies like The Relic (and not just for the dead kids). The Relic gives us a journeyman director with nothing really vested in the material, working for a paycheck and delivering the product as just that: a product, something to be merchandised. Mimic shows us a genuine artist struggling within artificially defined constraints to deliver a personal vision. It’s flawed and the seams show at points, but del Toro’s compromise is still worth 10 times Hyams’ manufactured goods.

October is horror month. That’s what the grinning pumpkin on my stoop told me, anyway.