Four years after his first feature, Cronos, Guillermo del Toro made his Hollywood debut with Mimic and famously hated the experience. Though he might have been hamstrung in certain arenas while making the movie, Mimic is still stuffed full of del Toro trademarks — and 23 years later, it’s fascinating to revisit.
If you’re looking to watch, or rewatch, Mimic director’s cut is widely available and is recommended since it presumably mitigates some of the damage done to the theatrical release by the Weinstein brothers. (“My first American experience was almost my last because it was with the Weinsteins and Miramax,” del Toro remarked at a BFI London Film Festival screening of The Shape of Water in 2017, quoted in Indiewire. “I have got to tell you, two horrible things happened in the late ‘90s: my father was kidnapped and I worked with the Weinsteins.”) Also, the director’s cut is hi-def, and Mimic is a supremely dark and gloomy movie — most of it’s set in abandoned subway stations and tunnels — so that also works in the viewer’s favour.
Mimic opens with a devastating epidemic — not a pandemic, though, since the disease that’s been killing children has thankfully been contained to Manhattan. The idea of children in peril is a recurring del Toro theme, and since we know he’s not shy about following through with actually killing kids in his movies (sometimes they get to be ghosts or underworld princesses as a consolation prize), there’s real danger hanging over every character. But the outbreak really only exists to give our well-meaning heroes — “bug lady” Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino; fun fact: Mimic came out the same year as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion) and CDC bigwig Dr. Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam) — an excuse to concoct a countermeasure against its carrier, the notoriously indestructible New York City cockroach.
What harm could possibly come from genetically engineering a bug dubbed the “Judas breed,” designed with a special enzyme to wipe out roaches and then expire gracefully (without ever breeding) after completing their task? If Jurassic Park taught us anything, it’s that life finds a way — which is to say that while New York City’s kids do stop contracting the roach-borne illness, something potentially way more terrifying mutates and evolves underground.
Mimic was adapted by del Toro and Matthew Robbins from a 1942 short story by sci-fi giant Donald A. Wollheim. However, the story isn’t really the draw here; we’ve seen the film’s cautionary, weird-science story beats many times. There’s also a certain mid-‘90s X-Files feeling to the scenes where Susan, Peter, and the others who reluctantly end up aiding their quest (including Josh Brolin as Peter’s cocky CDC underling and Charles S. Dutton as an over-it MTA officer) start pulling out flashlights and trying to solve some unnatural mysteries. But most of Mimic is pure del Toro, and not even terribly watered-down at that, despite his displeasure with the production experience.
There are no gleaming cityscapes here; New York has seldom looked so grimy and unglamorous, even in the scenes set above ground. Special effects legend Rob Bottin (The Thing, Total Recall, RoboCop) designed the gangly nightmares that emerge from the shadows; future del Toro favourite Doug Jones plays one of the “Long Johns,” so named because they resemble tall guys in baggy overcoats. Of course they’re actually winged cockroach-human hybrid monstrosities that are attracted to the scent of blood, not unlike vampires — another favourite del Toro beastie.
After starting their on-screen killing spree by offing a preacher (which seems a bit on the nose), the Judas breed — which have already feasted on all the unhoused people who’ve taken shelter in the subway — start growing bolder. This initially goes unnoticed, since Susan and Peter unleashed their Franken-critters into the world without any sort of follow-up — an irresponsible blunder that F. Murray Abraham’s scientist character shows up to emphasise, just in case the fact that Giant Humanoid Roaches Now Exist isn’t already proof that genetic engineering can be risky.
Among those victims are, yes, kids, starting with the scrappy youngsters that eagerly bring bugs they capture to Susan for five bucks a pop. Elsewhere, a little boy — who can be read as having autism — is able to identify every pair of footwear he sees, thanks to all the hours he’s logged alongside his guardian (Giancarlo Giannini), who shines shoes in the subway. He’s one of the only witnesses who can report the creatures when they first attack. There’s another strand of the child theme when Susan, who’s been trying to conceive, tosses her pregnancy test in the garbage prematurely, where Peter later notices it’s showing a positive result. That bit of information is impossible to forget when Mimic segues into the part of the movie that’s mostly Susan and the others running, screaming, and falling down hard.
Mimic doesn’t end up digging too deeply into anything beyond “We made it, but oops, now we gotta kill it!” — as much as one’s brain might want to read into the fact that all the kids (and nearly all the characters, period) are male, and the only way to wipe out the Judas breed is to kill the one fertile male that’s enabling all the population growth. It doesn’t even trifle too much with scientific responsibility; there’s no sense that Susan and Peter are going to be held accountable for the significant amount of collateral damage they’ve caused, especially after they’ve been hailed as the saviors of New York’s younger generation.
Mostly, Mimic preys on one of our most basic fears: bugs, especially creepy-crawly critters of unusual size that no sneaker-stomp can vanquish. And because it’s del Toro pulling the strings, that basic fear becomes monstrous in a way that’s both gorgeous and grotesque. The movie may feel a little more by-the-numbers than del Toro’s more textured masterworks, or even his energetically quirky commercial hits like Hellboy and Pacific Rim. But as a creature feature that exists mainly to give all who watch it some serious heebie-jeebies, Mimic still has more style, squirm, and bite than your average B-movie.