Imitation, “Mimic” tells us, is nature’s most protective form of flattery. Flies can evolve to look like spiders, caterpillars can take on the markings of snakes. Given how hostile humans are to the insect kingdom, it’s not hard to guess what bugs would imitate, if only they had the chance.
Based on a short story by Donald A. Wolheim and run through four screenwriters, “Mimic” is basically genre all the way, and much of its plotting and characterization is standard issue. But “Mimic” also has Guillermo Del Toro, a director with a gift for horror, and that makes a considerable difference.
As those familiar with Del Toro’s previous work, the haunting Mexican vampire film “Cronos,” already know, that gift is a disturbing thing to observe. Del Toro is an expert at the ominous, using a striking visual sense to drench his films with an atmosphere suffocatingly thick with undefined menace.
Though Del Toro must know that what is left unseen is more terrifying than what the camera reveals, the mass-market nature of “Mimic” demands a much higher gross-out quotient than the more artistic “Cronos,” which won the International Critics Prize at Cannes. Still, even within the box office’s insistence on off-putting sequences dedicated to making the audience squirm, Del Toro understands how to bring a sense of style to the genre’s oldest tricks.
Both the film’s creepy credits sequence (done by Imaginary Forces, the outfit that did the similar work for “Seven”) and its opening sequence tell the same back story: A tragic epidemic called Strickland’s disease has raged across Manhattan for two years, threatening to kill an entire generation of children.
To stop it, the Center for Disease Control’s Dr. Peter Mann (“Emma’s” Jeremy Northam) has asked Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino), the usual brilliant scientist who heads the department of entomology at the American Museum of Natural History, to find a way to attack the disease’s carrier, the common cockroach.
Not one to disappoint, Dr. Tyler uses genetic engineering to create a new species of superbug called the Judas breed, which takes out more roaches than the Orkin man. The epidemic is stopped and now, three years later, doctors Tyler and Mann are happily married working professionals.
Things are not so swell, however, in the dark caverns beneath the city. Strange predators have been killing people and dragging them underground, observed only by a withdrawn little boy (Alexander Goodwin of “Nobody’s Fool”) who works for his shoe-shining grandfather (Giancarlo Giannini). Gifted at imitating sounds and a wizard at identifying footwear, the boy is stumped by what he sees. “Mr. Funny Shoes” is the best ID he can come up with.
Meanwhile, Dr. Tyler, dubbed “the bug lady” by the media, is handed a suspicious-looking box of cornflakes by two kids out to make a buck. Inside she discovers a baby Judas bug, something that was not supposed to happen, since the breed tested 100% sterile in the lab. “They were designed to die,” she tells her old prof and bug guru (F. Murray Abraham), “and they are breeding.”
Determined to investigate, the two doctors enlist a young assistant (Josh Brolin) and an understandably reluctant subway cop (an emphatic and empathetic Charles S. Dutton). Everyone eventually ends up in the nasty tunnels of a dark and awful subterranean world, sucked deeper and faster than they imagined possible into an ever-unfolding nightmare.
It’s evidence of Del Toro’s skill at creating the ambience of dread that even during the film’s horror film time lag, when the audience knows what’s going on but the characters don’t, he manages enough visual brio to keep us from feeling impatient.
Collaborating with Danish cinematographer Dan Lausten, production designer Carol Spier (who works frequently with David Cronenberg) and editor Patrick Lussier, Del Toro has created a true landscape of unease for “Mimic.” Even nominally neutral sights, like a hospital room filled with gauze tents, statues of saints draped in plaster and a deserted snow-covered children’s playground, play as spooky in this gifted crew’s hands.
In fact, the argument could be made that “Mimic” is considerably more effective before the dread creatures--enormous human-looking insects created by Rick Lazzarini, who also did the more playful Bud Frogs for the beer commercials--make their appearance.
Though he can handle it, Del Toro’s heart doesn’t seem to be in the out and out repulsion the bug attacks require. His gift is for the whiff of nightmare, not its more obvious components, and those with stomachs strong enough to withstand the shocks will be gratified to discover in “Mimic” an impressive horror film that has the ways and means to scare and scare again.
* MPAA rating: R, for terror/violence and language. Times guidelines: numerous shots of enormous bugs doing their worst.
Mira Sorvino: Susan Tyler
Jeremy Northam: Peter Mann
Alexander Goodwin: Chuy
Giancarlo Giannini: Manny
Charles S. Dutton: Leonard
Josh Brolin: Josh
Alix Koromzay: Remy
F. Murray Abraham: Dr. Gates
Released by Dimension Films. Director Guillermo Del Toro. Producers Bob Weinstein, B.J. Rack, Ole Bornedal. Executive producer Michael Phillips. Screenplay Matthew Robbins, Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Greenberg, and John Sayles. Cinematographer Dan Lausten. Editor Patrick Lussier. Costumes Marie-Sylvie Deveau. Music Marco Beltrami. Production design Carol Spier. Art director Tamara Deverell. Set decorator Elinor Rose Galbraith. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.