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.