'Mimic' Is an Uncommonly Gorgeous B-Movie

by Jesse Hassenger

3 October 2011

"Mimic is what happened to me while I was making other plans," Del Toro says with a philosophical wink.
cover art


Director: Gullermo Del Toro
Cast: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Charles S. Dutton, Josh Brolin, F. Murray Abraham

US DVD: 27 Sep 2011

Guillermo Del Toro knows that you may not have given much thought to Mimic, the 1997 creature feature that kept him off further Hollywood movies for another five years or so. In his commentary track on the new Blu-Ray director’s cut of the movie, he refers to a brief 1999 Onion piece about a man who “can’t remember whether he rented Mimic or The Relic,” referring to another 1997 horror picture. Del Toro mentions the Onion spoof with good cheer, but it’s not mere self-deprecation; late in the commentary, he’s placing his experiences in perspective, noting how a filmmaker can expend great effort on a project, only to be overshadowed by or confused with another movie due to release-date vagaries.

At first glance, it does, indeed, seem remarkable, even bizarre, to pay so much attention to Mimic, especially if you’re not a committed Del Toro fan (even then, it’s probably one of your least favorites). On the surface, it’s a pretty generic horror thriller about killer bugs. Mira Sorvino plays Dr. Susan Tyler, an entomologist who created a cross-breed bug to wipe out disease-carrying cockroaches in New York City. Naturally, the new bug doesn’t just die out as planned, instead evolving into a race of creatures that can imitate their prey. No prizes for guessing what manlier species now constitutes said prey, and whether the good doctor must investigate and wind up leading a motley group into the subway tunnels. 

This group, led by Sorvino during the precise window within which she was allowed to star in major motion pictures, functions as something of a ‘90s time capsule: it includes Charles S. Dutton in his natural habitat—not the subways, mind you, but in any sort of jumpsuit or uniform, which he seemed to wear through most of the decade, here as an amusingly grumpy MTA worker—and Jeremy Northam (remember when he was a thing? No? Well, ask the Weinsteins about it). The actors are fine, but it’s Del Toro’s visual sense that complements the story moreso than the characters or dialogue; the mystery of what’s down there in the subway has appropriate eeriness, even if the people aren’t much fun.

Before venturing into the subway for its final 40 or 50 minutes, Mimic shows a little conceptual ingenuity, as it’s something of a cross-breed itself: the human-mimicking bugs are half creature, half serial killer. For the most part, though, Mimic stands out not for genre-busting, but as an uncommonly gorgeous B-movie. Del Toro may have been hassled by script revisions and studio interference, but his visual scheme for the film remains intact, full of eerie blues and greens as the camera snakes through a rotting subway infrastructure. Even at seemingly inconsequential moments, the film overflows with memorable images, like Sorvino’s small face framed inside the window of a hazmat suit, a beacon in a sea of green light.

All of this looks great on Blu-Ray for the first time, and, moreover, after familiarizing yourself with the premise, it’s easy enough to take in the film’s visual splendor while listening to Del Toro’s commentary track, which by the end has turned into a good-natured (and sometimes profane) treatise on the nature of artistic expression. In a video introduction, he promises to be “as honest as legally possible” and refers to his experience on the film as a “cautionary tale”—the studio’s insistence on cheap jump scares and less atmosphere and suspense turned the film into a compromise for Del Toro, and he explains this process in great detail on the commentary.

So many new commentary tracks are recorded before the film in question has even been released, so it’s fascinating and sometimes hilarious to listen to Del Toro, a passionate storyteller, analyze his own movie 14 years later, with the added perspective of having prepared a semi-repaired director’s cut with ten extra minutes of footage (the theatrical cut is not included in this release).  This version, he notes pointedly in the “Reclaiming Mimic” overview, is “free of second-unit crap” (it contains, he adds, “only first-unit crap” that he can be properly blamed for if you don’t like it). On the commentary, he talks about little moments, like Sorvino screaming at one of the beasts, that still make him cringe – “let us cringe together,” he laughs.

His dedication is clear, but Del Toro also sees flaws that many viewers might well overlook when enjoying a stylish B-movie. As such, casual fans may be hard-pressed to notice the differences in this director’s cut, especially with the movie’s theatrical ending still in place (an alternate version is presented as a deleted scene on the disc, but even that is not the preferred, never-shot scarier ending that Del Toro discusses). The restoration of what Del Toro calls “shreds” of ideas—thematic grace notes, mostly, touching upon religion and evolution—improves the movie marginally, but its strengths remain visual more than thematic, something that, frankly, holds true about Del Toro’s more acclaimed films, too.

What really improves the film is the commentary itself—anyone interested in the crafting of fantastical stories is advised to listen, as Del Toro talks about theories of suspense and his love for the “handmade fallibility” of practical effects, as well as the challenges of the studio system that he better navigated for Blade II and Hellboy. This isn’t conveyed with any bitterness; it even ends with a hearty geek’s recommendation that fans seek out the direct-to-video Mimic 3, which he had nothing to do with but admired. “Mimic is what happened to me while I was making other plans,” Del Toro says with a philosophical wink, and while it’s not a great movie, it makes for a swell anecdote.



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