MIMIC (1997)

Synopsis:  The children of Manhattan are struck down by the virulent Strickler’s Disease, which leaves crippled the few it does not kill. Unable to combat the disease’s carrier, the common cockroach, Dr Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam), Deputy Director of the Centre for Disease Control, turns for help to entomologist Dr Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino), who devises a plan to create a biological control. The plan is a success. At a triumphant press conference, Peter announces that – along with the cockroach itself – Strickler’s Disease has been eradicated before it could escape Manhattan. Peter then introduces Susan, who is now his wife. Susan explains to the reporters the creation of “the Judas Breed”, a genetically engineered insect carrying termite and mantid DNA. Released to infiltrate the cockroach population, the Judases produced an enzyme that, once taken up by the roaches, increased their metabolism to the point where they simply starved to death; while the Judases themselves, designed to be sterile adults and to have a limited lifespan, died out also. That evening at home, Peter watches the press conference on TV, smilingly observing that his and Susan’s fifteen minutes are now over. Despite her seeming triumph, Susan is subdued, worrying over the possible consequences of her actions, until Peter distracts her with a suggestion that it might be time to start thinking about children of their own…. Three years later, a minister operating a refuge is pursued onto the roof of his own church, from where he falls to his death; an event observed by a young autistic boy, Chuy (Alexander Goodwin), who lives opposite the church with his shoemaker grandfather, Manny (Giancarlo Giannini). Chuy watches impassively as the minister’s body is dragged into the basement of the church by a tall figure that is making an odd clicking noise, which Chuy imitates. The next morning, Peter is summoned to the church by his assistant, Josh (Josh Brolin), who tells him that people have been found locked inside the church, and have since been kept confined there for fear of a communicable disease. Josh also points out a peculiar phenomenon: a large faecal deposit on the ceiling of the church. Seeing that the building sits directly above the subway, Peter worries that any disease present may already have spread. Arriving at her job at the museum, Susan finds two streetwise young boys, Ricky (James Costa) and Davis (Javon Barnwell), waiting for her, wanting to sell her their finds of dead insects. Susan humours them, sending them on their way with a few dollars and a collection jar, but quickly sobers when she inspects the boys’ prize find, a strange bug as big as her hand, which they found in the subway. Susan is amazed to discover that the bug is actually still alive – and even more, when she realises that it is only a juvenile. Without warning, the bug latches viciously onto Susan’s hand. She pries it free, and swiftly pins it to an examination board. As it lies there struggling, the insect begins to release a white viscous secretion. A terrible fear gripping her, Susan goes to her office to re-examine her own research notes – while outside the building, a tall figure stands motionless, watching her windows. Meanwhile, the squirming insect continues to chirrup. From her office, Susan hears the sound of breaking glass. She rushes in to find the bug gone and the window wide open, and is suddenly aware that she is not alone….

Synopsis: Mimic was the second film, and the first US production, of the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who had previously made a name for himself on the arthouse circuit with his imaginative and visually arresting re-working of the vampire mythos, Cronos, and who has since developed into one of the more interesting directors working in the genre field today. Mimic is certainly recognisable as a sophomore effort. Compared to its freewheeling predecessor, the film is very formally structured. There is a sense throughout of a reigning in, an unwillingness to take risks – although that said, there are a couple of shock scenes you wouldn’t expect to find in an American film – and the screenplay is rather unimaginative, particularly considering the talent that worked upon it, credited and otherwise. As for its story, Mimic could hardly be more traditional: the film is essentially a classic 1950s Big Bug movie, with that standard fifties bugaboo, radiation, replaced by its equally standard nineties equivalent, genetic engineering; an old-fashioned, tampering-in-God’s-domain, monsters-on-the-rampage science fiction movie. Am I complaining? I am not. I always love a monster movie, be it good, bad or indifferent; and it is as a monster movie that Mimic works best. Although the main body of its action takes place almost entirely in the murky recesses of New York’s subway system (and the film has attracted some criticism for its relentless darkness and gloom; but where would you expect a battle with giant cockroaches to be taking place? – on the beach?), this is not to disguise any shortcomings in the special effects department. On the contrary, this is one movie that has no need to hide its critters in the shadows: the bugs are simply fabulous. The other aspects of the film are, unfortunately, less remarkable. The acting is solid without being particularly memorable; while the production design and the cinematography are spookily atmospheric, but restricted by the setting of the action (and truth be told, there is rather too much light in those subway tunnels, “seven storeys down”). But it is at the script level – specifically, alas, in its science – that Mimic ultimately disappoints.

There are probably few creatures on the planet that people find more naturally repulsive than the cockroach. Even those of us affectionately inclined towards the members of the Class Insecta generally rarely have anything good to say about them. In this sense, roaches are a natural to play the bad guys in a Nature-Strikes-Back film – and yet few productions have ever tried to exploit their natural unpopularity. There was Creepshow, of course; and The Nest, which offered up flesh-eating roaches (oh, those wacky scientists!); and Damnation Alley, which very nearly succeeded in making giant roaches cute; but on the whole, for an insect so universally loathed, the cockroach has won comparatively little screentime. And when you stop and think about it, it really isn’t too hard to figure out why. Cockroaches, after all, don’t actually do anything. Oh, sure, they’re gross. They scuttle, and swarm, and scavenge, and lay eggs and poop all over the place, and one day, as we all know, they’re going to inherit the Earth; but still, they don’t, you know, do anything. They don’t bite. They don’t sting. They don’t suck. They don’t hunt, or rend, or dismember. So while the thought of giant cockroaches is probably enough to give most people the skin-crawls, the roaches themselves just aren’t sufficiently threatening. And this, clearly, was the dilemma that confronted the writers of Mimic – one that they signally failed to solve. At the press conference where Peter announces the eradication of Strickler’s Disease, Susan is invited to explain her work to the press. It is here that we learn that in the creation of the Judas Breed, DNA from both termites and mantises was somehow employed. The camera pulls back here, and Susan’s voice fades out, so we never do get to hear the “explanation” for this tactic. Nor is it justified later on, when Susan is confronted by the catastrophic side-effects of her work. Of course, once we see the giant roaches in action, the “reason” is all too clear: it’s so that they can hunt and kill like praying mantises, and have a vicious soldier class, like termites. This is an outrageous cheat. I mean, how hard could it have been to throw in a few lines of dialogue to cover up this manoeuvring? To suggest, perhaps, that the enzyme with which the native population of cockroaches is infected by the Judas was derived from mantids, or that the secretory glands of the termite were required to disperse it? That the writers didn’t even bother to try and disguise their central contrivance is just an insult.

And it doesn’t stop there. There is one deliciously absurd moment, for instance, when Susan is trying to convince Peter that the Judases have indeed survived, and tells him of a pH test – conducted with a basic litmus strip, no less! – that she performed on the juvenile bug brought to her lab by the two young boys. “I did a pH test, and there are only two species that match what I found!” she avers. Oh, so you’ve conducted a pH test – with pieces of litmus paper, presumably – on every species of insect in the world, have you, Susan? Well, why not? There are only, oh, about thirty million of them, after all! Give or take. More seriously, it is left totally unclear just how Susan’s biological control is supposed to work in the first place. During that pointedly truncated press conference, Susan mentions that the Judases’ secretions contain an enzyme that is supposed to send the cockroaches’ natural metabolism into fatal overdrive. An enzyme? How exactly are the roaches supposed to be infected by an enzyme? Do they take it up through their exoskeletons? Is it sexually transmitted? Do they eat it? And how do we even know that the roaches will come into contact with the Judases’ secretions in the first place? Do they contain some sort of chemotactic factor, or are we just relying on dumb luck? And even supposing the roaches did take up the enzyme, how is it supposed become a part of their metabolic function? Perhaps the legendary resistance of the cockroach to just about everything dissuaded the writers from just having the Judases carry bacteria or a virus, even though those agents could be far more believably manipulated; but the use of an “enzyme” in this context makes little sense.

But all of this, disappointing as it is, pales into insignificance beside the central premise of Mimic: that the Judas breed has not merely survived, but evolved into a huge, highly developed, savage predator capable not just of threatening mankind, but of infiltrating and eradicating it. The truth about the Judases is revealed only gradually. Susan first recognises that the bug brought to her lab, large as it is, is only a juvenile; an incompletely developed adult, about three feet long, which Dr Gates (a cameoing, and essentially wasted, F. Murray Abraham) identifies as belonging to a soldier caste, is fished out of the sewers; while the adults are about seven feet long (high?), with a wingspan of perhaps ten feet. Throughout the film, we have seen tall, apparently human figures lurking in the shadows in the periphery of the story. As Susan waits for Peter at a deserted railway station, while he searches the tunnels below for proof of what they both fear, she becomes aware of a slender, motionless figure at the far end of the platform. One of Mimic’s truly great moments follows, as the figure reveals itself first as humanoid, a crude but satisfactory copy, then as totally inhuman, as it unfurls wings and claws and jaws to swoop through the air and carry the terrified Susan off into the darkness. Still more is to follow. Late in the film, Susan, Peter, Leonard Norton, a railway cop reluctantly drawn into the enterprise, and Manny, who has entered the subways to search for the missing Chuy, become trapped in an abandoned subway car, pursued there by a Judas which they finally manage to dispatch – although only after Leonard empties two clips into it, and it is cut in half by the sliding doors of the car; and even then it doesn’t go without a fight. Susan tentatively turns the upper half of the bisected insect over, and discovers that her greatest nightmare is a reality: the creature has lungs.

And this, of course, is where Mimic really blows it. The film’s premise is that the Judases, presumably under the biological influence of that metabolic “enzyme” they were carrying, have undergone a rapid course of growth and evolution, finally emerging as a species capable of challenging Homo sapiens for dominance. But evolution doesn’t work like that. You don’t just “evolve” because you feel like it; and you certainly don’t just “develop” lungs. It’s not as if a Judas was poking around one day in the chest cavity of some dismembered mammal and said to itself, “Gee, those look like fun, think I’ll try ’em!” Evolution of any kind, and certainly something as profound as the emergence of lungs, could only happen under the most extreme of environmental pressures – none of which are being exerted upon the Judases. On the contrary, there is a beautiful, empty, inviting niche down there in the darkness, one just waiting to be filled: that previously occupied by the cockroaches for whose demise the Judases are responsible. Nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum; and the most likely outcome for the Judases was simply to take the place of their predecessors. They might have been a bit bigger, a bit faster, a lot meaner….but there’s no reason why they should have developed into something so wholly alien as the creatures we see here. Now, I suppose the inference is that metabolic enzyme was responsible for all this; but that still leaves us with the mystery of why that enzyme should have wiped out one species of roach, but turned another into SuperBug. I guess we just chalk it up to “SCIENCE” and move on.

That said, we can’t really move on until we examine Mimic’s final, crowning blunder: the blatant error in the speech that gives this film its title. The “mimicry” to which it refers is the development in the Judases of two sections of the carapace which, brought together, take on sufficient resemblance to a human face for the bugs, wrapped tightly in outer wings that give the appearance of a full-length coat, to pass as human, at least for so long as they remain out of the direct light. There are, of course, numerous instances of mimicry in the natural world; and Susan uses that to explain the phenomenon, arguing that the Judases have evolved (there’s that word again!) this way of eluding their natural predator: mankind. Except, of course, that we are not the Judases’ predators. How can we be? – we don’t even know that they exist!! So what are we supposed to think, that the Judases are displaying anticipatory evolution? Please! This is not only ridiculous in itself, but there was a perfectly obvious alternative to this argument that would have both allowed the film to keep its title, and to be much, much more frightening: that the Judases are using mimicry not as a way of eluding their predators, but of getting close to their prey. Us.

After all this, it may come as a surprise to some of you that I retain a lot of affection for Mimic. Unsatisfactory as its science may be, I wasn’t thinking about that at all – and neither will you be, I assure you – just so long as its six-legged co-stars were on the screen. As I said before, the roach effects in Mimic are really excellent: imaginatively designed, well executed, repulsive, and scary. For some people, the sight of giant cockroaches might be quite repellent enough; but Mimic doesn’t stop there. Anyone who ever stepped on a real roach and recoiled in disgust from the resulting mess might want to steer well clear of this one, which delivers an almost non-stop shower of goo. From the first moment that a bug appears, things ooze, and burst, and squirt, and splatter; dismembered bodies, animal and human, decorate the landscape; while at one point, three of the characters wander through a literal forest of shit. When the surviving humans become trapped, Susan wards off an impending attack by dragging out the guts of the bisected roach and smearing its secretions all over herself and her companions; and later, after a close encounter, Peter gives himself another coating, whipping a roach gland out of his pocket and rubbing it all over his face and hands. For anyone who ever squirmed through the alien autopsy sequence of John Carpenter’s version of The Thing, it will come as no surprise at all to find Rob Bottin’s name on the credits of Mimic. Indeed, I can think of few films since The Thing that took quite as much pleasure in grossing its audience out with its bodily fluids as Mimic does. Of course, biology is very much about bodily fluids; it’s really not a profession intended for those with weak stomachs. Watching Mimic takes me back to my undergraduate days, and to the lecturer who one year walked into our first prac class, gave everyone a big, beaming smile, and announced, “By the time this course is over, you’re all going to really love mucus!” Well, perhaps it’s too much to say that I loved it; but I did progress to the point where I could put my bare arm into a barrelful of dead slugs floating in a bath consisting primarily of their own extruded slime without getting too freaked out by it. So when I watch Mimic, my main reaction is not to cry out, “Oh, gross!!” but rather to give a gleeful chuckle, knowing that on some strange level, I’ve come home….

Hmm. Okay. Sorry for the personal digression. I guess the question now is, is there anything in Mimic for people other than terminal nutcases? Well, yes, I think so – although not as much as there should have been, had the script been better developed. One of the main criticisms that has been levelled at Mimic over the years concerns its handling of its child characters. Of course, there are those who feel – and who are perfectly entitled to do so, of course – that when it comes to onscreen endangerment, children should be off-limits. This is not a stance that I necessarily agree with. There are ways and ways of doing everything, and no matter how you feel about the decisions taken by the writers of Mimic, it must at least be acknowledged that the film’s use of children is not at all gratuitous, but rather a reflection of the film’s unexpectedly serious underlying theme. With all of its wandering about in the dark, and its battles with hideous insectoid monsters, Mimic tends to dismissed as yet another rip-off of Aliens; the scenes late in the film, when Susan appoints herself the protector of the boy, Chuy, even at the risk of her own life, only strengthen the argument. (In order to save Chuy, Susan deliberately injures herself, using her own blood to draw a roach away from the boy and towards herself. Another Dr Susan – McAlester, that is – could take lessons from this Dr Susan in how to employ this tactic without, shall we say, going overboard.) But in truth, the resemblance between the two films – or rather between Mimic and the Alien series as a whole – lies rather in their mutual fascination with reproductive themes and gynaecological imagery, and with their wars between species for the right to endure. The children of New York are Mimic’s first casualties (oddly, few of the people who criticise the film over its child characters mention the sequence that describes the ravages of Strickler’s Disease; apparently it’s okay for thousands of children to die, just as long as it’s offscreen), and children remain at risk throughout, even as juvenile Judases are instinctively crushed underfoot by repulsed human beings. Meanwhile, Susan’s professional activities form an ironic counterpoint to her private desires, the ability of the supposedly sterile Judas Breed to reproduce itself contrasted with Susan’s own apparent inability to conceive. Echoing its most obvious progenitor, Them! (the granddaddy of all Big Bug films, and easily the best of the lot), Mimic is, in the end, about some pretty fundamental facts of life: the instinct to breed, and to propagate; and ultimately, to survive; all of which applies to the human race just as much as it does to, say, the cockroach. Unfortunately, while this material is certainly there in Mimic, it is never really comes together as it should. Much as I enjoy the film’s yecch factor, I am compelled to admit that it would have been a much stronger work had it put a little more effort into its screenplay, and a little less into figuring out how to gross the audience out next. Then, too, it must be conceded that the central “war” never amounts to very much. There are a number of aspects of Mimic that disappoint, but none so much as the fact that the giant roaches never escape their subway world and go for a proper rampage through the streets of New York. Now, that would have been worth seeing!….and after all, if the budget for your monster movie won’t stretch to staging the obligatory rampage, maybe you shouldn’t be making one….

Unusually, perhaps, for a film so rife with scientific and biological themes, Mimic is also rich with religious imagery, which is where director del Toro is finally able to make his presence felt. Those eerie plastic-swathed statues from Cronos make a reappearance here, in the boarded-up church that forms the setting for the beginning of the story proper. (The “Cronos Device” itself, come to think of it, is very much like a mechanical cockroach….) Crucifixes flash in the darkness as the characters fight to overcome their unnatural enemies; a rosary plays a critical role in the closing scenes; and Dr Gates accuses Susan of wanting from him, not advice, but “absolution”. Del Toro also plays the name-game again here, putting the fight for mankind into the hands of Dr Peter Mann and Manny the shoemaker; while the weaknesses in the writing and the handling of characters in Cronos that finally undermined some of the film’s many virtues, are also evident here. There are a painful number of contrivances manifest in the plot of Mimic as it struggles to get all of its central characters to the same point of the abandoned subway system in time for the final battle. We can accept that in the absence of any solid evidence, both Peter and Susan would want confirmation of her fears before they go public – although Peter’s involvement in the enterprise feels more like it stems from a desire to cover his wife’s butt than anything else – and also that the Deputy Director of the CDC could get the permits to inspect the subway; but didn’t anyone – anyone connected with the railways, for instance – wonder why he wanted them? Then, of course, there’s the fact that this clearly dangerous expedition is undertaken without any safety gear, still less any climbing gear (and yes, it’s a piece of falling scaffolding that strands Peter and Leonard deep underground); and what are we to make of the total absence of any communication devices? – no mobile phone, no walkie-talkie, no police radio? I mean, come on! And the way that Susan ends up in the subway - !? Sadly, in the course of the film both Susan and Peter are handed Death Battle Exemptions© of absolutely groan-inducing magnitude – as, in a sense, is Chuy, although the film does deign to provide a reason why the roaches might not have killed him. (Our only consolation is that, even if both of them survive the final showdown, Peter and Susan will ultimately be facing a damage bill comparable to that handed to Carl Denham at the beginning of Son Of Kong….and be facing a New York City in a similar mood.) The final third of Mimic is well-staged and suspenseful, granted, but I can’t help but wonder if the New York railways and the Power Company are really that indifferent about disconnecting unused electrical systems….

In terms of character, I suppose that the most contentious additions to the cast of Mimic are the “special” Chuy (I’m assuming autism) and his grandfather, Manny; I confess to finding both of them rather irritating. On the other hand, the arrival of Leonard the railway cop lends a welcome spice to the proceedings. (Leonard is played by – who else? – Charles S. Dutton. Yes, folks! Here at AYCYAS, it’s all Charles S. Dutton, all the time!) I particularly like the various clashes between Leonard and Peter (Peter, being himself not entirely guiltless in respect of petty tyranny and arrogance, is most indignant when he finds himself receiving some of his own treatment from Leonard, who he promptly accuses of having a Napoleon complex); and the way that, in the face of danger, all bickering ceases, and the protagonists become simply “Susan”, “Peter” and “Leonard” to one another. But underlying all this drama is the relationship between Peter and Susan. Now, this is not to say that their relationship forms the major, or even a major, component of the plot. It doesn’t: that’s what I like about it. Their marriage is sketched in the lightest of strokes. They meet, they fall in love, they marry, they stay devoted to one another – most of it offscreen. So many science fiction films feel compelled to build themselves around either Cliché A (the initially hostile pair who inexplicably fall in love) or Cliché B (the estranged couple reunited by a crisis), that anything else is rare enough to seem remarkable. Jeremy Northam does rather well with what he’s given here – and his accent is dead on – but considering what kind of film this is, Peter simply isn’t the focus of the story.

Mira Sorvino’s casting as a “brilliant entomologist” is, to say the least, rather off-beat; but she does surprisingly well. (Her willingness to – literally – get down and dirty during the second half of the film is particularly commendable.) Predictably, there comes a moment when someone – one of the young bug-hunters, as it happens – asks Susan, “How come you like bugs so much?” What follows is the standard “necessary exposition” scene: nothing Susan says here fails to come into play later in the film, from the behaviour of soldier termites, to the dietary habits of the species (this bit is supposed to excuse their failure to kill Susan; it doesn’t), to the existence of a single fertile male in the colony. But Sorvino does really well here. There’s no manic over-enthusiasm in her speech, just a natural and believable admiration for the sheer beauty of biology in action. (Her young auditors are, of course, completely unimpressed.) We come away convinced that Susan loves her work for the very best reason in the world – because.

Having succeeded in establishing Susan’s credentials, however, Mimic proceeds to treat her, in my opinion, most unfairly. Once again, we have a “expert”, a “leader in her field”, apparently knowing less about the correct applications of her discipline than anyone else in the world. The whole section of the story dealing with the development and release of the Judas Breed is deeply suspect, apart from the central idea itself of engineering a biological control to deal with the recognised carrier of the disease. There have indeed been numerous instances, not just of attempts to eradicate or reduce problem pests by genetic means, but specifically of what we see here, the release of a sterile variant to break the breeding cycle (in light of this, Dr Gates’ snotty announcement that he found Susan’s tactics “unforgivable” is fairly ridiculous); and in some of those trials, mutations did indeed result in the emergence of a fertile variant. This is why, when undertaking this kind of work, the engineered population is closely monitored – and why you don’t, as is implied in Mimic, just stare down at a bunch of dead bugs and say, “Well, that looks like it worked, let’s go home.” Least of all do you do that when dealing with cockroaches, perhaps the most frighteningly resilient piece of biological design even seen on this planet! I would have expected a project like Susan’s to have a follow-up period of at least six to twelve months, during which the release site was closely monitored for survivors. Perhaps, given the size of the released Judases, it might even have been possible to fit them with tiny transmitters, so that the movements of the infiltrators could be tracked and the success or otherwise of the inserted “suicide gene” determined. (Susan, being the scientist, is naturally the one “blamed” for the persistence of the Judas Breed, at least by implication. However, considering the resources at its disposal, the CDC should and would have been in charge of this aspect of the work.) At any rate, accumulated experience in the field of released biological controls renders ludicrous Susan’s whimpered protest, “But it worked in the lab!” An entomologist of her standing should not have needed the inevitable reproof from her disapproving mentor, Dr Gates: “But, Susan – you let them out.”

And this is, finally, where Mimic rather sticks in my craw. Yes, Susan’s work has spawned giant killer cockroaches (hey, happens to the best of us, right?) – but, as the screenplay bewilderingly fails to stress, it has also achieved exactly what it set out to achieve: it has eradicated Strickler’s Disease. Something strange happens in the course of this film. The fact that “an entire generation of children” is at risk at the opening of the story; that there have many, many deaths already, and that nothing approaching a cure or a vaccine has been found; that Susan’s actions have saved countless thousands, perhaps even millions of lives, ultimately has less resonance than Manny’s hysterical cries of, “How could you do this!?” and Leonard’s angry – and flagrantly untrue and unjust – addendum, “Yeah, you tell her, Manny, ’cos she don’t give a goddamn!” This is not to say that Susan should not be held accountable for the unseen consequences of her actions, nor indeed that the end justifies the means; but merely that I think that Mimic could have put rather more effort, rather more emphasis, into presenting the case for the defence.