Mimic: Director’s Cut

Mimic Artwork by Mister GDirector: Guillermo del Toro / ScreenplayGuillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins (from a short story by Donald A. Wollheim) / Editing: Patrick Lussier / DP: Dan Laustsen / Music: Marco Beltrami

CastMira Sorvino / Jeremy Northam Alexander Goodwin Giancarlo Giannini Charles S. Dutton / Josh Brolin / F. Murray Abraham / Doug Jones / Norman Reedus

Year: 2011


The Imitation Game


The second feature from Guillermo del Toro: Mexico’s Wunderkind director of contemporary ‘chillers’, Mimic is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, with little held in reserve. Given his subsequent filmography, Del Toro was almost fated to make a film like this, early in his directorial career, as if to ‘get it out of his system’. 

Raised by his Grandmother in difficult circumstances, it fell to comic-books and pulpy horror-flicks from the 50s / 60s to act as touchstones for the young Del Toro, providing both enjoyment and inspiration for a fertile imagination bent on creating its own new worlds and characters. To some extent, based on the sketchy thumbnails I have formed of both men, I’d say that Del Toro’s subsequent flowering as a visionary artist & director, closely resembles Tim Burton’s journey, if only for their shared interest in the look and feel of ‘Gothic’ source material and a fundamental understanding, both of film history and the nuts & bolts of film-making. 

Del Toro is acutely gifted in this latter regard, with an almost Tarantino-esque knowledge of cinema. You can’t see a film like Mimic without feeling you’ve seen it all before… Not the film itself, I should add, but its plethora of schlocky references and nods to the genre in which it firmly sits…

GlassesIf that sounds like a criticism, it’s not. I actually appreciate what Del Toro’s managing to do here, on what was evidently a limited budget. Trouble is, that for some reviewers back in 1997 when the theatrical cut was released, news of the troubled production (and the hobbled mess that emerged) overwhelmed the good stuff and the film struggled to find an audience. That said, as Del Toro’s reputation grew with subsequent films, so did Mimic’s, thanks to a cult following on home-video, to the extent that a pair of straight-to-video sequels eventually appeared (though without Del Toro’s involvement).

What I’m reviewing here, though, is the remastered ‘Director’s Cut’ from 2011, some fourteen years after its original release. It seems that, thanks to over-bearing interference from producers Bob & Harvey Weinstein, Del Toro’s film lost a number of subtleties that would’ve rounded-out his vision more completely and, going by his introduction on the Blu-Ray, it’s clear that he’s thrilled with how the film now looks and plays, with most of these restored. I wasn’t familiar with the original film but until I saw the interview afterwards, I realised I hadn’t spotted the joins. Sometimes, a ‘restored’ version of a film doesn’t ‘flow’ as well as the more tightly-edited Theatrical Cut and as a result, it’s relatively easy to spot the joins, but Mimic was different and I would imagine their original deletion must’ve come hard to the young film maker. 

He also talks about his original ending and how the studio denied him the chance to even film it. Had they done so, we might’ve enjoyed the sight of Mira Sorvino being confronted by a naked man down in the NYC sewer telling her to ‘leave’. Out of context, I think I speak for everyone that, should that ever happen ‘for real’, we won’t need telling. Just saying…

GlassesSo to the film then and things start promisingly enough with a title sequence firmly rooted in B-Movie territory, with its snatches of cockroaches and other bugs shot with a macro lens, then stitched together in fragments. Layer-on a scuzzy soundtrack and the mood is achieved. So far, so good and the quality bar is maintained when Del Toro opens with a crane shot overlooking a stylised ward of a paediatric hospital, populated with cots draped in muslin shrouds and tended to by nuns. Turns-out this was actually shot by the second unit, which is why it looks totally different to what follows, but that said, it’s a striking image. Already, Del Toro’s building a world analogous to the interior of a termite nest, as the cots resemble plump, white maggots, with the bustling nuns so many ‘workers’ tending to the needs of the vulnerable. Here we see Jeremy Northam’s Peter Mann, leading ‘insectologist’ Susan Tyler (Sorvino) through the ward, as he outlines ‘Strickland’s Disease’: the common affliction of all these kids. Paul pleads for Susan’s help to overcome this wooliest of McGuffins…

First a word about Northam. He’s been on my radar for years, actually, ever since I saw him in Enigma (2001), opposite Kate Winslet. Adept at playing suave, cultured types in good tailoring (think a modern-day Cary Grant), Northam’s shoe-horned here into the role of a scientist from the ‘CDC’ (Centre for Disease Control) and looks faintly uncomfortable in mufti. Opposite him, playing one of those movie-specific ‘DNA Engineers’, is Mira Sorvino’s Susan. This is the first picture I can recall ever seeing her in, actually. Checking IMDB reveals a rich filmography before what I assumed was her debut, including Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and a noted role in Wayne Wang’s cult classic Blue in the Face (1995). If you’ve never seen either this or its blood brother Smoke (1995), I urge you to make the time; you’ll not see a better improvised comedy-drama set in and around the daily life of a New York tobacconist’s…

Sorvino’s casting struck me as odd at first blush, until I settled into the homage this film clearly is. It might be based on ‘original material’, but Sorvino’s blonde hairdo reminds me of the classic roles of Jean Harlow, Kim Novak and Eva Marie Saint to name but three icons for whom Mimic would’ve been almost typecasting. What’s more, Sorvino is no damsel-in-distress. She’s a fully-rounded, spunky heroine in this movie, more than capable of holding her own, which is just as well, when her male co-stars are bumbling around the tunnels like The Three Stooges. Actually, that’s worthy of comment: I wonder WHY there’s just one other woman in the cast (Susan’s friend, who gets scant minutes of screen-time)? It might’ve been written that way in D. A. Wollheim’s original short story, but I think Del Toro missed a trick by not expanding the film’s gender balance as it would’ve introduced new dynamics to the group.

GlassesSusan’s ‘help’ comes in the form of a GM-modified cockroach that she’s created (seemingly unaided), whose DNA has been blended with that of a Termite, to create a ‘superbug’ capable of wiping-out (read: eat) Noo Yawk’s indigenous ‘roaches, thus rid the city of its plague and cure its ailing children in one fell swoop. What could be easier?

Blimey, the Nineties and DNA engineering: it really was a thing, wasn’t it? The world was staring down the year 2000 and wondering how long it’d be, before we were all commuting in flying cars and eating pills for dinner. Mimic, just as Jurassic Park before it (and other movies that aren’t springing to mind) set about lifting the lid on the underbelly of that future, because ‘three years later’ – making in the year 2000 – of course, Dr Ian Malcolm’s earlier prediction came true and of course the superbugs defied their genetic hour-glasses and started breeding. And eating. And evolving to the point where they’d grown to the size of a full grown man, able to walk upright on back legs and wrap their wing-cases around themselves so that, in half-shadow, they’d pass for someone wearing a black trench-coat as they scuttled past. The kicker, was a two-piece shroud for their various mouthparts which, when joined-up, half-resembled a human face. Because, well, duh 

Still, it’s not all bad for Susan, as she’s at least shacked-up with the dreamy Dr Peter… From bugs to babies? Not quite. Seems she’s having trouble conceiving – ironic, given her only offspring-to-date is hell-bent on killing-off the human race.

Susan gets wise to the imminent horror, when a couple of young kids (and would-be wise-guys) show up at her ‘lab’ with one of the baby mutant ‘roaches they’ve trapped in a cornflakes box – as you do. Before they leave, Susan is good enough to give them (and us) lots of helpful exposition about the layout of a Termite’s nest and their societal organisation: thanks! Now alone, in a maze of glass cases and dark wooden furniture, she delves into the box and pulls-out this reminder of her past. Mystified that it should’ve survived beyond its use-by-date (just for the record, I’m not), it pricks her hand. In retribution, she slams it onto an examination tile and stabs it with a comically over-sized display pin, last seen pinning-down MothMan; nothing’s getting away from Dr Susan…

Yet outside, lurks a shadowy figure, who’s gazing up at her office window, as if sensing the pain of her pinned ‘roach. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, it has entered her room, freed its ‘lil buddy and left via an open window, in a sequence that Del Toro milks it for all its worth, in this untrammelled homage to the classic ‘Creature Features’. ‘Science’ represented here by Dr Susan – has meddled in things it can’t / won’t control and now gets to reap the whirlwind. As Ian Malcolm once said in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” As the creatures continue to evolve – and threaten mankind – it’s clear how Del Toro might’ve pursued his original vision, had he been granted directorial control from the outset: a scenario that explicitly puts the blame for our own destruction at the foot of our science and the unintended consequences when it goes wrong…

GlassesMeanwhile, a young boy on the autistic spectrum – Chuy – lives with an elderly guardian – Manny – who has a shoe-shining concession on the platform of Delancy St. Subway station. From his room, Chuy watches the comings and goings of ‘Mr Shiny Shoes’ from a chapel on the opposite side of the adjoining alley. He’s even begun playing the spoons, to mimic the noise made by the bug’s clicky-clacky feet: a Mimic Mimicking another Mimic… I see what you’re doing there, Guillermo and I like it.

It’s all very Hitchcockian – particularly evoking Rear Window (1954) – as Chuy observes from afar. When the temptation gets too much and he clambers into the chapel to see for himself, both the score and the way the space is lit, reminded me of the aforementioned Tim Burton; specifically his work on Batman Returns (1991) and its lush, string-laden score by Danny Elfman.

Other references? Aside from occasional dissonance from the second unit, Del Toro’s film also draws large inspiration from (I think) Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995), for its impenetrable shadows, tinged with amber (Orange) light and dark green (Teal) key-lights. The occasional trickles of water down institutionally-tiled walls. The assortment of stylised & repurposed sets dressed in artefacts of no definable time period and populated by characters who themselves, are from an indeterminate timeframe. Such distancing away from the familiar moves things into the realm of Fable; elevating Del Toro’s work into more of a cautionary tale, warning against untrammelled scientific advance as much as conjuring a world of hungry gribblies with extendible mandibles. It’s a remarkable trick if a Director can pull it off and I think, aside from the odd intrusion of ‘modern life’ into proceedings, e.g. the cellphone, Del Toro succeeds.

Susan’s talking to her boss (the ever wonderful F. Murray Abraham, who surfs the lunacy of performing an autopsy on his office desk). They’ve found another, more evolved sample at a fabulously Gothic water-treatment plant (clue: the bug’s now developed lungs) and only now, Susan’s realising that the mess everyone’s about to experience, is all down to her. No pressure, then.

At the same time, Del Toro’s got Peter in an unlikely partnership with an un-named Detective (played by Josh Brolin in an early appearance) as they tour the lower levels of the New York subway in the company of cop Charles S. Dutton’s Leonard – a multi-faceted character, is our Len, as we’ll see during his Third Act. Yes, he’s a sacrificial lamb, along with Brolin, but he’s also blessed with a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the subway’s layout and operation (which proves handy) and later acts as a fourth wheel between Peter, Susan and the over-reactive Manny. Giancarlo Giannini invests Manny with too much Sturm und Drang for my taste, though he’d put this farrago behind him a decade later, when he played the affable agent Mathis in a couple of Bond pictures…

GlassesIt’s all ridiculous once our heroes go below street-level (not that Del Toro had been giving us Citizen Kane beforehand, you understand). Examples include taking a cellphone call in an abandoned tunnel seven-storeys-down, then conveniently losing the signal. Using a clutch of handy amber glow sticks to lighten one’s passage through the warren of tunnels (just to scratch that Teal and Orange itch). Oh, and then there was Susan’s decision to smother characters in the juicy-gloop of a dismembered ‘roach, in order to disguise their scent (reader: I smothered him). Or Len’s unaccounted-for-knowledge of how to make an abandoned subway car start moving, after fifty years entombed in an abandoned tunnel THAT STILL HAS POWER…    

Subtle, Mimic is not, but as I’ve stated, it was never meant to be anything more than an exercise in homage appreciation / participation by a directorial fanboy given the keys to the toyshop. Of course he’s going to make this! It’s just unfortunate that his producing partners didn’t trust his judgement and imposed their own interpretation on proceedings: a decision that lost them Del Toro’s endorsement of the film until this Director’s Cut attempted to put things right. 

Let’s be clear: this cut has not miraculously produced a Silk Purse from the original Sow’s Ear. There are still plot & logic problems, an occasional mismatch in set-ups between the units and a main creature that’s never really allowed to ‘star’: blame the budget and the inescapable fact that its disguise only works in the shadows. If a character were ever to shine a light onto it directly, any disguise would just melt away along with their plans for world domination… Now, where’s that can of Raid?

What there is, remains a serviceable genre picture, doing little that’s not asked of it. It looks good on occasion and allows Del Toro room to breathe. That it kick-started his future career, with its many highlights, is a blessing given this unhappy beginning.

They all died in the lab…

Yes, Susan. But you let them out. And the World’s a much bigger lab.


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