Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Film at 25: “Mimic” a Rare Misfire in Guillermo Del Toro’s Remarkable Career

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Writers: Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robins

Starring: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Charles S. Dutton, Josh Brolin

Synopsis: Three years ago, entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler genetically created an insect to kill cockroaches carrying a virulent disease. Now, the insects are out to destroy their only predator, mankind.

Oscar-winning director Guillermo Del Toro has created lots of memorable fantasies with awesome creatures, colorful characters, and stunning nightmare worlds. He puts a unique directorial stamp on every film he makes, and for the most part, he has succeeded, especially with his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, the extraordinary ghost fable The Devil’s Backbone, and the sumptuously made The Shape of Water, the film that won Del Toro his Academy Award for Best Director. 

But the one film he made that never came together in the way he wanted was the Dimension Films science fiction thriller Mimic, starring Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam, released twenty-five years ago in August 1997. The horror genre was booming in popularity that year, following Wes Craven’s 1996 smash hit Scream, and with the oncoming I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2. Meta slasher films about teens were all the rage, but thrillers with evil creatures, with plenty of science fiction tossed in for good measure, didn’t have the same kind of pull for audiences. Around this time we got The Relic, Event Horizon, and Phantoms, all with good casts and clever premises that, for one reason or another, didn’t make much of an impact at the box office.

Mimic was another of those creature features, but this time we had the visionary Guillermo Del Toro behind the camera, hot off his acclaimed 1993 debut Cronos. Based on the short story by Donald A. Wollheim, Mimic tells of cockroaches carrying a virulent disease that are slowly morphing and growing, and soon set out to destroy mankind, Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) and Dr. Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam) setting out to stop them before it’s too late. The plot is absurd, but Del Toro’s eye for stunning visuals and the gathering of a solid cast that also includes Giancarlo Giannini, Charles S. Dutton, Josh Brolin, and F. Murray Abraham elevate the material over some of the other similarly-themed genre films of the time.

Some elements in the film work better than others. Sorvino, just a year after her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for Mighty Aphrodite, gives an engaging and believable performance, even if her character is slightly underwritten, and even if her chemistry with Northam is almost nonexistent (the two actors reportedly couldn’t stand each other while filming). The action is also top-notch, especially when a giant cockroach swoops up Sorvino in the middle of a subway station, and when an explosion rocks a New York City street from beneath, cars launching into the air. The concept has some intrigue, kind of an expanded X-Files episode directed by a mad genius and featuring two Academy Award-winning actors. 

However, after watching both the 1997 version and Del Toro’s preferred 2011 Director’s Cut, I didn’t find much else to recommend about Mimic. The pacing in both versions has a snail’s pace in the first half that isn’t helped by pedestrian dialogue, and Jeremy Northam’s woodenness brings the narrative to a crashing halt at times. The movie is also absurdly dark once the characters navigate those underground subway tunnels, some of the events difficult to see, let alone be gripped by. 

Del Toro has stated with no ambiguity that he hated making Mimic, disowning the film upon its release after a production fraught with tension and constant clashing with Harvey and Bob Weinstein. The latter apparently paid lots of visits to the set, making unreasonable demands about what should be shot, and threatening to fire Del Toro if he didn’t get his way. Once production wrapped, Bob Weinstein oversaw a lot of the post-production process, and Del Toro’s vision became compromised before the film hit theaters. There’s a slickness and a lack of focus to many scenes that don’t feel like they’re of Del Toro’s making, and ultimately Mimic doesn’t cohere the way so many of his other better movies do. 

The reviews were not all bad at the time, Roger Ebert giving the film a rave and saying “Mimic makes the old seem new, fresh and scary,” but the film landed with mostly a thud at the box office, only pulling in 25 million on a 30-million-dollar budget. Its release in the dumping ground of late August probably didn’t help, but if Del Toro had been able to put on the screen exactly what he’d intended from the beginning, everyone would have been better off in the long run. 

He was able to pull together a few deleted scenes as well as remove second-unit shots he never liked for his later Director’s Cut, but Mimic was never able to be salvaged completely, and so if there’s one saving grace about this mediocre movie, it’s that the terrible experience Del Toro had making it put him back on the path of more personal stories like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Mimic, alas, was a mere hiccup in what has proven to be an astonishing career. 


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